What four years as a client taught me about running an agency

—After 25 years working in agencies, Michael Boychuk wasn’t expecting a move to an in-house agency would be that tough. ‘Not going to lie, it was a hellish-steep learning curve,’ he says—

I once worked with a head of account services who said in a moment of frustration, “This would be a great business if it weren’t for the clients.”

His statement nailed the tension between agencies’ reliance on clients (duh) and the simmering resentment that comes with it. We’re supposed to be working arm-in-arm, but it’s stupid-obvious to say that there are times when we aren’t exactly on the same page.

And while I am proud to have had some very productive client partnerships through the years, my ability to understand where clients were coming from only moved from basic to fluent once I actually became a client.

In 2014, I left Leo Burnett to become an ECD at Amazon. You’d think that after 25 years of working at both small startup agencies and the biggest agency in the world, that becoming a client and leading an in-house agency would not be that much of a stretch.

Nope. Not going to lie, it was a hellish-steep learning curve.

Here are a few things I learned along the way:

  1. Shocker: Results are real

My agency self thought of campaign budgets as “which director can we afford?” and campaign effectiveness as fuzzy math to be rounded up and animated into an award show case study video.

My client self found out that the dollar signs that go with each project represent real money that is budgeted and added to the price of a product. Want to pick that script with a fancy location and an A-list director? The price of the product just went up $5. I sat in meetings with cold-blooded data scientists whose sole task was to analyze and report on campaign effectiveness week over week. They weren’t there to brainstorm how to make a winning Effies case study video. And when the results aren’t altogether positive? You don’t want to be in those meetings. Trust me.

In order to be true partners with their clients, agencies have to let go of a great case study as their ultimate goal. Getting on the same page means living in the same reality as clients and taking ownership of budget constraints, campaign effectiveness and the impact our work has on our clients’ business.

  1. Own the data 

We’ve all been trained to crave the perfect, pithy brief. As a client, I found that clever and pithy was a great way to lose arguments and internal support to make risky work.

Presenting work internally means you are selling work to not just marketing people, but product developers and engineers who spent years (sometimes careers) developing the thing behind the brief. And if you’re going to convince them, you’d better be able to go 16 layers deeper than the three sentences you paid attention to in the brief.

The successes I had as a client (including scoring Super Bowl spots that consecutively ranked No. 1 and No. 2 on USA Today’s Ad Meter) came from digging in deep. From not just understanding the “what” but also the “why.” From spending time listening to product people and engineers. From reading through consumer research that was never intended for marketing purposes. And with that knowledge came not just the ability to make it over internal hurdles, but it also drove work that was more breakthrough and insightful.

  1. F the lines

One of the hardest things I dealt with as a client was agencies that weren’t willing to break the entrenched client/agency model. They saw an imaginary line that needlessly separated clients and agency people. You give us the assignment. We give you the work. You buy it. Done.

That was the functional model before the advent of large internal agencies that have to run work up the flagpole for internal stakeholder approval. Now, if internal creatives are “approver humans,” relegated to the back of the video village tent, it’s much more challenging to get their help evangelizing the work.

My most successful client work always came from a willingness to ignore client/agency lines. Creativity can’t be the precious sole domain of agencies. Share ownership. Welcome your clients into the creative process. It can get messy, sure – but think of the potential of putting your shoulders to the wheel together. External boundary pushing, coupled with internal know-how is like peanut butter and chocolate.

If your career path gives you the chance to be a client, great. You’ll learn a lot, it will make you better and you might get a cool badge lanyard out of the deal. If not, try a little radical empathy. Understand that the world looks much different from the other side of the table. The money is real and the pressure to deliver goes much further than the south of France.

And don’t hesitate to skip the “ta da!” moment and bring your clients along for the ride. You’ll go a lot further together.

Michael Boychuk is co-founder of Little Hands of Stone, a Seattle-based Independent advertising agency. 

This column originally appeared at Campaign US.



David Brown