These Times Remind Us: It's About Relationships

Doing great work is critical, but it's not enough

Given this shift in our daily work lives, where we don't get to actually be with anyone except through a video screen or phone call, I'm reminded of a classic ad from the 1990s. In this spot for United Airlines, the boss bemoans being fired by a client—"He didn't know us anymore"—pointing out that technology had shifted them from handshakes to phone calls and faxes. To reconnect his team with their clients, he proceeds to distribute plane tickets to everyone.

It's super ironic, given where we sit today. But it's also a simple lesson about the importance of relationships, which has never been more clear.

Entering the ad industry, I didn't appreciate the importance of relationships, thinking there would be an appropriate level of objectivity, meaning: 1) the best idea wins, 2) doing great work would keep a client happy, and 3) creating business successes would naturally lead to bigger, and even better, clients. 

I had misjudged how this thing operates. Don't get me wrong, doing groundbreaking work is critical to building a thriving agency. But the work alone isn't enough. What I've come to appreciate is how important relationships are to everything connected to this business. 

The Best Ideas

When I started, I didn't appreciate how hard it was for a client to buy a new idea, subscribing to the notion that "a great ad should make you a little nervous." That's really easy to say, but that nervousness comes from a lack of control and uncertainty—two of the most uncomfortable feelings any human can have. Thankfully, though, these feelings can be eased a bit when we can share them with people we trust. 

Looking back on the work I'm most proud of, the commonality is a strong, trusting relationship with each client. Without a deep level of trust and respect, these inventive campaigns would have never existed. And in each case, the leader of each organization—who also shared in the discomfort—was involved at a ground level. This was critical. I've found that if we don't get the opportunity to present challenging work directly to the person who can say no, our work often gets bruised to an unrecognizable mass as it's dragged up the rickety ladder to the no-sayer. If you've spent any time in this business, you understand how this process destroys new ideas. We've found that building relationships at the highest levels of the client organization will reward them with the strongest needle-moving work. 

Keeping Clients

When are you most likely to lose a client? 

1) When sales are soft? Possibly. 
2) When budgets are cut? Maybe. 
3) When there is a change in marketing leadership? Likely.

No matter how successful it's been, an agency is most vulnerable when marketing leadership changes. When a new decision-maker comes in, they usually want to do things a little differently. Simply executing what's gone on before isn't particularly attractive to them, because it doesn't feel like they're having an impact. And they want to work with people they can trust, which might be someone they've worked with before. It's simply human nature. So while you'd think your success would keep you safe, it's not enough. Building a relationship with the new decision-maker quickly is critically important. 

Winning Prospects Over

Early on in new business presentations, we'd be described as "the really smart agency." We weren't salesy, nor would we pay a ton of attention to the trappings of the presentation, convinced that focusing on thoughtful strategy and surprisingly engaging creative would win the day. And while we won some pitches this way, we weren't as successful as we should have been. 

Personally, I had disdain for agencies that seemed to be focused more on the relationships than the work. I concluded they were able to sell safe ideas through the strength of their personalities. It felt like cheating to me. But they'd win, and then we'd endure the disappointing work that would emerge months later.

But after a decade or so in this business, combined with my study of human behavior, I realized the "suckups" had it right. They weren't actually sucking up. They simply understood the importance of relationships in making people more comfortable with their point of view. Research underscores the fact that the more you like someone, the more likely you are to accept their ideas. To not recognize this is foolish. Convincing a potential client that you're smart, creative and even hard-working isn't enough. 

Building relationships has been an ever-increasing part of my role throughout my career and an important part of our business development. Most of our newer clients have come through a connection or relationship—clients we've worked with before, a contact made through another relationship, even an impression made during a pitch we didn't win. Frankly, I've found this part of the job can be the most enjoyable and fulfilling—it doesn't feel like cheating at all.

And now, when we literally can't be in the same room, having solid, trusting relationships with our clients is what is helping us all get through these difficult months. Even so, we all look forward to the day when handshakes—or at least elbow bumps—are back in our daily lives.

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Tom Denari
Tom Denari is president and chief strategy officer at Young & Laramore.

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