A report found that clients of design agencies were united in the reason for the success in client/agency relationships. It came down to a specific role…
Let’s play a guessing game. We’ll list the attributes, you name the job title…
Creative and strategic. Innovative. A sense of humour. Great organisational skills. Patient. Honest. Proactive. Unfazed. A leader, a team player, with gravitas. A unifying force. The reason a client stays with their design agency.
When we asked some of our clients why a great project manager (did you guess the role?) adds so much value to the creative work, this is the list they gave us. So it wasn’t surprising to read in the DBA’s What Clients Think report, which polled 600 clients, that 87% of respondents blamed poor client services as the main reason for a breakdown in their relationship with a brand agency.
“A project manager is like a counsellor: you need them at the briefing stage, to act as a translator between client and creatives,” says Cris Piera, marketing manager at Wok to Walk. “But execution and follow-up are equally important. As clients, we are often so overwhelmed by tons of things to keep up with, that we tend to lose focus or the capacity to visualise the process and final goal. A good project manager is more an advisor and a strategist than a planning specialist.”
The misconceptions of project management
And that’s a dangerous mistake for agencies to make: to treat client services as managing timelines and booking meetings. Hannah Scally, Without’s senior account manager, points to a long tradition of client services being seen, in a significant part, as a sales role: get accounts, secure the budget, hand over the brief to the creative team. “Culturally, I think that’s a big mistake,” she says. “It means that client services aren’t focused on the same thing as the client. That’s a recipe for frustration and mistrust from the get-go. We don’t work that way. Our client services are part of the creative delivery team: they are totally focused on the work and its outcome. That’s why clients keep coming back.”
Savoir’s marketing director Sarah Frederickson agrees, adding that some agencies focus almost entirely on creative work alone. “But that’s a given for us, that’s why we take on a creative agency. A great project manager is why we stay,” she explains. “The role encompasses so much – interpreting the brief, generating ideas, ensuring the creative is delivered on time, to budget. It’s easier to have these conversations with a project manager; a good one removes potential issues and saves everyone a lot of pain and time. But it’s a significant overhead that – in the eyes of some agencies – isn’t ‘producing’ any work.”
There are two problems with that misconception. First, that a project manager has no creative input. Second, that exceptional creative work delivers itself. “This role is not just about facilitating creative work. Everyone on the team is a participant in the process; everyone has a hand in the outcome,” Hannah explains. “The great days are fizzing with collaboration, energy and fun. There’s a craft to bringing everyone together. So when you manage to build a solid team between client and creative – everyone pulling in the same direction, everyone hearing each other – then the creative gets to shine and the project is a joy.”
Expanding our client services team
With that in mind, we’re expanding our client services team at Without and looking for people with the attributes we listed – our clients listed – at the start of this article because we don’t take comments like this for granted: “Since day one, we felt that Without question the system, blend roles, believe as much in strategy as in creativity and treat them as a cohesive department instead of separate wings,” Cris says. “That’s why – together with the quality of the work and the fact that they told us we were wrong when we were – we chose Without as our creative partners.”
The decision to invest in design and strategy can be a huge, humbling gesture of hope and trust in a creative agency. “It’s a big, scary, thrilling leap into the future. Recognising and feeling that as a team sets everyone on the right path,” Hannah says. “Also – and this is not to be taken for granted – I get to work with a bunch of genuinely delightful colleagues with first-class talent. I love watching the work come together. It’s the only place I’ve chosen to sit in on extra meetings just for the interest and fun.”
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This article first appeared in The Brief, a fortnightly email with conversations and provocation for leaders and founders of brands. Just sign up here to receive it directly to your inbox – and join the debate.