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The Trouble with Clients
By Mike Carlton

That Word

Perhaps no word is used more often within an advertising agency than the word “client.”

You know how it goes; “The client called,” “The client’s goals are,” “The client wants this changed,” “The client rescheduled the meeting date,” “The client has a question about our invoice,” “The client…” “The client…” “The client…”

A Foundation for Misunderstanding

On the surface all these references to the client appear natural, normal and clear.

The dictionary defines the word client as; 1. A company for which the advertising agency is acting, and 2. A customer. Clients are the reason agencies exist. It is where the money comes from. Everybody knows that. And of course, everybody knows just how important the client is to the agency.

So, what’s this misunderstanding stuff?

Simply this. The word client can take on a radically different meaning depending on who is being referred to. Let me explain.

The Company vs. The Person

The word client can apply to either the company which the agency is representing or it can apply to the persons who are employed by the company to interact with the agency.

Now the textbook says that the interests of the individual employees and the company should always be in accord. But the unfortunate truth is the agendas of the client company and the client persons may not always be in alignment.

This can lead to all kinds of trouble.

The Agency’s Responsibilities

Agencies are hired, and paid, by companies to help them solve business problems. Problems that are addressed by changing consumer behavior. Changed behavior that benefits the client company financially. This is the first, and foremost, agency priority. The agency’s job is to help make the client company successful. If the agency does not do this, ultimately it will be fired.

Thus, for the client company the agency is in the success business. Helping the client succeed in the marketplace. That responsibility is simple enough. There should be no confusion there.

The agency’s responsibilities to the client persons who are employed by the client company are much more complex. And can be quite difficult to fully fathom. It has been said that the agency’s responsibility to the client persons is to make them happy. For them, the agency is in the happiness business.

And that is certainly a worthy and necessary objective. For clearly the client persons have it within their power to replace the incumbent agency if they are not happy with it.

The Challenge

So far it sounds fairly simple. Make the client company successful by changing behaviors in the marketplace while at the same time making the client persons happy.

The challenge, however, is that sometimes what will make the client company successful is different from what will make the client persons happy.

When this happens where does agency allegiance attach? To the client company? To the client persons? How to satisfy both? Is there a catch-22 here?

Client Needs vs. Wants

Now to complicate matters even more there is a big difference between needs and wants. And the agency must respond appropriately to each.

Client Needs
These are outcomes that will help the client company, as well as the client persons, achieve the business results they desire in the marketplace.

Needs are goal rather than task oriented. And success is measured in money or other quantitative metrics. Things like increasing sales by a certain percent or achieving greater profitability or market share are typical needs.

Needs are not always well articulated. And it is not unusual for there to be little guidance from the client side on how the desired outcome is to be measured, much less achieved.

Client Wants
Wants are quite different from needs. They are usually tangible. A new website. An improved social media program, A product brochure. A revised TV campaign. All things that may (or may not) contribute to the accomplishment of the needs outcome. Wants are usually tactical in nature.

Most wants are easily articulated. In fact, many RFPs are just a recitation of wants often with little or no mention of the overarching needs.

And if deciphering all this isn’t messy enough, there are more complications to come.

The Client Trilogy

Typically within each client company you find three different kinds of client persons. The client trilogy. Understanding each of them, and the motivations that drive them, is vital for successful, enduring relationships.

For the purpose of discussion we’ll assign each kind of client person a color name: Green, Blue and Red.

Green Client
This individual is easy to identify by one important characteristic; he/she has the ability and authority to establish a marketing budget on the spot. A green client is effectively above typical advertising budget constraints.

A green client would mostly likely carry the CEO, COO or CMO title. He/she is focused on high level business needs. Needs that may cause sleepless nights. He/she almost always measures success quantitatively, usually denominated in money. They are typically held accountable for successful outcomes by the board of directors or an executive committee.

A green client is pragmatic. He/she evaluates the price of any initiative against the rewards achieving the outcome will deliver, functioning in a true ROI mindset. The equation for a green client is not in finding the lowest price. But rather what the economic reward will be for solving the problem at hand vs. the cost of achieving that solution.

This is a value driven mentality. A far cry from a price driven one.

Unfortunately green clients may have limited contact with their agency. More often they tend to look to outside consulting firms for assistance with their big problems. And while they enable the search for a new agency quite often they don’t even sit in on the agency selection process.

Green clients usually view business quite generally. Almost as a sport. And they frequently measure their personal success against peers not only within direct competitors but within in a broad scope of businesses.

Blue Client
A blue client generally reports to a green client. A blue client can usually be identified as the holder of the major marketing communications budget. And while they cannot unilaterally change the total of that budget they usually have the authority to move money around between sub-budgets. For example, they can move funds from traditional advertising to PR to social media, etc.

A blue client may carry a title like vice president of marketing, director of marketing communications, etc. He/she is usually responsible for establishing or approving the strategic market communications direction for the company.

Traditional blue clients may not be very receptive or comfortable with quantitative metrics, while more contemporary ones often embrace big data analytics and metrics.

While the green client is business oriented the blue client tends to be craft oriented. A blue client understands how advertising and other forms of marketing work and may have a keen sense of what is good agency work. They value creativity. Sometimes more than marketplace outcomes.

And, it is not uncommon for a blue client to really like peer awards. And he/she may tend to measure personal success by his/her portfolio. They can be very loyal to an agency that earns advertising and marketing awards for them.

Blue clients typically initiate agency reviews, with enablement by their green boss, and are often the highest ranking member of the agency selection team. And, typically most agency/client management issues are resolved at the blue client level.

Most importantly, what keeps a blue client awake at night may be quite different from what keeps their green client awake. There can be a significant gap in understanding between the two of them.

Red Client
Here’s where the day-to-day work gets done. The red client generally reports to the blue client. They may have full responsibility for spending within one medium (often a large sum) but have no authority to spend in another medium. For example, they don’t have authority to move money from TV to internet, etc.

And their craft skills are usually not as sophisticated or highly developed as the blue client.

A red client often has a title like advertising manager, marketing coordinator, etc. He/she is usually consumed with tactical implementation of the company’s marketing communication program. And as such, often has the greatest contact with agency people.

The red client, along with his/her opposite number at the agency, is charged with making all the various task projects come in on target, on time and on budget. He/she closely follows status reports and project schedules. And very importantly, is charged with approving individual project billing from the agency.

Red clients may be quite price oriented. They see their responsibility as acquiring all the various components needed to implement the overall marketing communications program at the lowest possible cost. Often they work closely with the company’s purchasing or procurement people.

Where the green client is value driven the red client is cost driven, with the blue client about half way between the two. And the red client may not have the passion for achievement that is often the characteristic of the green and blue client. For the red client, it may be just a job.

What a Mess!

When you look at the client landscape this way you realize just how big the agency’s communications challenge is. Sometimes internal company communications between the green, blue and red clients is iffy. Sometimes it is downright poor. And even in the best circumstances it may be misunderstood.

In a complicated environment like this, the definition of the word client is always situational. The meaning of the word depends on the circumstances. And what the client person is saying must be measured by the context of who they are.

No wonder misunderstandings and agency rework are as common as they are.

Now, the client trilogy is intuitively understood by experienced agency people. They know in their gut the differences between red, blue and green clients. And they know the difference between needs and wants. And the interests of the client company and the client persons.

Experienced agency staffers can navigate these difficult waters. But junior agency people often have difficulty with this. They may not be able to discriminate between the often conflicting interests of the reds and the blues and the greens. Much less the contest between needs and wants. Or the ultimate requirement of making the client company successful by changing behaviors in its marketplace.

It may be for them that a client is a client is a client. And that can sow the seeds for costly and frustrating misunderstandings.

Some Things to Consider

1. Do Your Junior People Understand these Dynamics?
If not, your folks may be inadvertently doing things that make it difficult to achieve the client company’s objectives. And in the process undermine the agency’s relationship.

All the while believing they are doing precisely the right things.

And your more experienced people, who intuitively understand the concepts, may benefit too from a clearer articulation of them.

2. Can Your People Accurately Identify Which of Your Client Persons Are Green, Blue or Red?
Understanding the role of each of the agency’s contacts is crucial. Throughout the agency. For a want from a red client has vastly different implications than a need from a green client.

Without a common definition structure it becomes difficult for folks to interact both effectively and efficiently on the work they are doing.

3. Can Your People All Articulate the Key Strategic Needs of Each Client Company?
Do they know what business issues keep the green client person awake at night? The major issues that stand in the way of the client company achieving its marketplace success metrics.

If not, they may be missing wonderful opportunities to provide significant strategic value. Value that can far surpass the worth of tactical projects they may be focusing on.

The Role of Success and the Role of Happiness

Agencies succeed by making client companies successful in their marketplace. But they must also make client persons happy in the process.

Without everyone understanding and addressing this dichotomy, and the roles, responsibilities and aspirations of the various players, the agency can become trapped in a morass.

A morass caused by internal misunderstandings. Misunderstandings that are easily preventable.


  No wonder misunderstandings and agency rework are as common as they are  
What a mess!
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