Agency Experts Share How To Navigate Awkward Client Conversations

Each week, The Drum asks agency experts from across the world and the ad business for their take on a tough question facing the industry, from topical concerns to perennial pain points.

Part of any marketing agency’s job is to present clients with an honest appraisal of a given opportunity or risk. You’re the experts, after all. Sometimes those conversations will mean bursting your client’s bubble or talking them down from a bad idea.

It’s a situation highlighted by the struggles of PRs and agencies last month, who found themselves persuading clients to cut comms efforts during the mourning period for Queen Elizabeth II, or to temper expectations of total brand safety among would-be Netflix advertisers.

So, how do you get through those ’let me break it to you’ moments? We asked agency experts from across the industry for their take.

How do you solve a problem like… realistic conversations with clients?

Craig Millon, global co-president, Jack Morton, and chief executive officer, Genuine

When counseling clients through tough situations, you need to do three things: be quick, be clear and be transparent. If you think a decision will result in a disaster, say so immediately and outline the possible consequences. If we aren’t clearly explaining the risks, we’re not doing our jobs.

A lot of times, clients are pushing for something because of downward pressure within their organization, such as a need to be in market by a certain date. If you recommend a pause, you must give them a real reason and proof such as data and examples to make the case. This way when they are pushing down, you’re arming them with the information to push back up.

Cecilia de la Viesca, joint managing director, Passion Digital

In an industry as client-focused as ours, it is difficult to allocate enough time to our own marketing, as clients always come first. Our strong suit up until recently has been using social proof; case studies, word of mouth and reviews from sites including Clutch or Trustpilot, together with really strong positions on Google for strong intent queries such as ‘digital marketing agency London’ (you have to, if you claim to be good at SEO). We also have a really strong network of partner agencies that send work our way.

But, at the end of the day, all of the above only generates revenue long-term if your proposition, the quality of the work you provide and your client service are on point and are exactly what clients, prospects and partners would expect. Up until now that has been our focus, and we can certainly confirm it has been time well spent.

As the market seems to be slowing down, now is the time for a lot of agencies (definitely including us) to raise our game in terms of marketing and exploring more outbound options to look for the leads and clients that fit within our culture, our values and our ideal client profile.

Phil Case, president and chief client office, Max Connect Digital

I have found that when tough conversations are needed with a client, it begins with a prior relationship that you’ve built of trust and respect. They know you have their best interest in mind. Be bold, honest and speak directly. Clients don’t want you to sugarcoat your perspective. They appreciate you sometimes calling their baby ugly, but you better be prepared to defend yourself.

Help them understand what an alternative concept or direction would be. If you can understand the why behind the idea and the business objective, a good partnership will always find another solution that you both can get behind.

Ed Rogers, managing partner, Alto New York

Our value to clients begins and ends by helping solve their business problems and realizing the opportunities in front of them. Plenty of clients come with their own solutions. We see ourselves as collaborators and know the challenges brands face will not be solved alone; they must be faced together.

Fundamentally we like to encourage brands to take a step back and not give us ‘the solution,’ but give us the problem in as much fidelity as possible – mainly because we believe that creativity can solve the world’s and our client’s greatest challenges when building off a clear strategy.

Pamela Long, partner, Little Big Brands

Being able to advise a client out of a bad idea is about the relationship you’ve built. That gets you a seat at the table. We consider ourselves brand partners and stewards and operate that way. If you’re seen as a vendor, you’re dead in the water. Partners don’t shy away from tough discussions and aren’t afraid to challenge thinking for the greater good. They are more interested in doing what’s right than doing what’s popular.

At the end of the day, I’d rather get fired than stand idly by while a client makes a decision detrimental to the brand.

Keith Noble, director, Forepoint

These conversations shouldn’t be hard or tough if you’ve got the trust of your clients. It’s then about recognizing that you’re the expert – it’s your unbiased, constructive criticism and advice that the client is paying you for.

Notice I said ‘constructive criticism’ – it’s easy to say that something’s not advisable, but it’s quite another thing to present a legitimate, well-reasoned argument as to why it’s not. And that’s the secret to getting it right. Whether or not they listen is another matter.

Alison Mayes, managing director, Apollo Partners

A strong client/agency relationship is the most important asset in this business, and it must be developed over time through consistency and trust-building. Inevitably, tough conversations will arise and, as the experts, it’s imperative to face them head-on. To be effective, you need to tap into that equity of trust you’ve built over time with the client. Then you need to walk the fine line between laying out the facts of a situation and keeping emotions and personal opinions to a minimum – while also hearing your clients out and understanding their POV too.

Pete Sena, founder, Digital Surgeons

Most people think placating clients is a good solution for great agency/client relationships. Actually, the best thing you can do for your clients is tell the truth. To forge trusted relationships, agencies must stop telling clients what they want to hear and start telling them what they need to hear to build their business. Be obsessed with outcomes. Hold space for everyone to be heard and always lead with evidence and data. Your job is to advise your clients on what’s best for their business goals, objectives and brand.


Annabel Mackie, managing director, Five by Five

In order to have realistic conversations with clients, you need to start with understanding. What’s driving them to think a certain way? What pressures are they under? What do you know from past experiences that are similar?

Then position your conversation from a place of empathy, but use your expertise to illustrate the other point of view.

I’ve found that if you’re honest from the start of a relationship with a client, and have the hard conversation early rather than skirting around it, you build up trust. So that the next time you have to have a hard conversation you do it from a place of trust and understanding, which means you can move quickly to solve the problem together.

Pete Meyers, president, BAM Strategy US

Don’t make it a ‘problem’ in the first place. You and your clients have shared goals and objectives for success. The more you set realistic expectations with clients and approach conversations with constructive guidance, the more you build your client’s trust and confidence. Minimizing any ‘us versus them’ mentality that makes these conversations uncomfortable is an important first step. Never forget that you’re on the same team, and being realistic is a key ingredient to helping everyone succeed.

David Vélez, strategy director, Remezcla

My approach is always to ground clients to make decisions that consider their brand values, but also give weight to the current state of culture. Throughout my career, I’ve heard brands say they want to stay at the forefront of culture. What happens next?

You bring them the next big name, but they make a rational audit and deem them not brand safe. I remind clients that it was just a couple of years ago that brands were introduced to Bad Bunny, but many passed on him – what would have happened if they vetted him by infusing a culture-first lens?

Tommy Henvey, chief creative officer, Something Different

Before you can have that difficult conversation with your clients, you’d better have built a good relationship first. They must know that you have their best interests at heart; they have to trust you.

Then I try to approach the let-me-break-it-to-you conversations like I would with someone in my family. I’m super honest and ensure they know they can count on me to help them figure it out. When a client is in the weeds on something, it can be tough for them to see the big picture.

Our job as their agency is to be another set of eyes. To show them why we think an idea or direction might not work while offering solutions or a different perspective for a better way to accomplish what they set out to do. If you have a real partnership, those conversations are welcome.

Emily Harlock, chief strategy officer, Special Group

I’ve never seen a client satisfaction survey that doesn’t report that clients ’want to be challenged more.’ However, these conversations are the true test of the health of a relationship. It’s never easy to give an unpopular recommendation, but that’s the point. If you care enough to say the hard thing when it matters, then it actually builds trust rather than damages the relationship.

We often talk about radical candor (care personally, challenge directly) when it comes to giving feedback in agency relationships, but the same thing applies in healthy client relationships. Getting it right starts way before the moment of the conversation. When a client knows you care about them (and their business), challenging conversations are easier because they don’t question that it comes from a constructive place. It’s a mark of care and it’s built on the trust that we want the same thing.

matt rees

Matt Rees, new managing director, Fiora

Have you heard the one about the agency that bluffed its way through to save face? Me too. It didn’t end well.

My best advice is to be brave. There will always be questions you won’t know the answer to. But be straight with clients or you risk misleading them and undermining the expert role that they most value.

It all starts with a close and honest relationship. Take time to build these from the start and difficult client conversations will always be much easier to navigate – particularly when advice is subjective. It also helps if your approach is outcome-focused; typically towards overall business success. You can align advice accordingly.

Beth Nunnington, vice-president of digital PR and content, Journey Further

While clients pay agencies to act as their consultants, ultimately you’re business partners, so it’s important to listen carefully to a client’s views before giving them your professional one. By building relationships that are open and honest from the get-go, you should be able to get to know your clients as people and always have an open dialogue.

I like to give my clients options with potential pros and cons and advice on which option we think is best, backed up by data and insight. It’s important to be decisive with your recommendations and have a clear rationale to back them up.

Tuck Shepard, senior vice-president of client strategy, MMI

A good client-agency relationship is not a transactional one, but a partnership built on trust that grows over time. This trust is earned through a combination of shared successes and – along the way – candid, sometimes difficult, conversations.

Good clients are willing to share honest and transparent feedback with agencies, and the same should hold true when we’re challenging our clients to make decisions that will lead to the best work. The key is to arrive at the discussion with relevant past experiences, industry best practices and your knowledge of their business to help establish a factual tone rooted in strategy.

More often than not, your clients will thank you for it.

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