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Be more collaborative and less transactional with your agency’s clients

Too many agencies focus on reporting the amount of time and effort that they put in on behalf of clients rather than talking about the strategy and the results it produces.

When agencies tell a client how many hours were spent on work that is not billed by the hour, it serves little or no purpose. If you talk about how many reporters you pitched rather than the number of stories you generated, you are missing the point.

In this episode, Chip and Gini talk about the perils of transactional relationships with your agency’s clients along with how to become more collaborative to produce better results.

Key takeaways

  • Chip Griffin: “If you fall into the transactional trap, at some point the client’s going to let you go because of it.”
  • Gini Dietrich: “Build a campaign that has the tactics in it, but doesn’t focus on the tactics specifically. It focuses on the outcome of that campaign.”
  • Chip Griffin: “I don’t buy a press release cause I’m going to frame it and put it on my wall. I buy the press release because it’s supposed to get me media coverage. So focus on the outcome of media coverage instead.”
  • Gini Dietrich: “You are being hired because you are an expert.”

The following is a computer-generated transcript. Please listen to the audio to confirm accuracy.

Chip Griffin: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m Chip Griffin.

Gini Dietrich: And I’m Gini Dietrich.

Chip Griffin: And Gini, I just want you to know that I have spent the last 27 minutes trying to plan for this episode, and I gave it some thought before that too. So that’s probably another five minutes, and I’ve only promised an hour a week.

So we’re gonna have to wrap this up really quickly to make sure that we stay within those boundaries.

Gini Dietrich: Okey dokey.

Chip Griffin: Right after this.

I think we should just make this show completely transactional. It’s just, it’s just all about the numbers. We’ll just, we’ll just figure out exactly how much time to put in, how long the episode should be, and we’re not gonna worry about anything else. Just, just making sure that we’re checking off all those boxes.

Gini Dietrich: Okay. So what you’re telling me is we technically have 32 minutes left together, but because you spent five extra minutes beforehand figuring this out. Yes. We only have 27 minutes left together.

Chip Griffin: Correct. And Jen is gonna make me write a blurb about this afterwards.

Gini Dietrich: Right. Fair. So, yeah. So that’s gonna take another’s another 15 minutes.

Chip Griffin: You think I spend that much time on the blurb? I spend, I spent, I spend about 120 seconds. Okay. All right. Usually the first 20 of that are replaying the beginning of the episode so I can remember what the heck it was about. And then I write my three paragraph summary real quick. Okay. So, It is what it people, people are, they wanna listen to this.

They don’t wanna read my little summary. I just have to put something there so that it’s not blank when it goes up on iTunes. Yes. You know? Yes, I agree. So, but if you, if you actually read that summary out there, Drop me a note, let me know and maybe I’ll give it a little bit more thought. I’m bet. I’m betting not a single one of you sends me an email about that.

Gini Dietrich: I bet that’s Yeah, I bet that’s true.

Chip Griffin: So, but no, we, we are gonna talk about the, you know, a transactional versus a more collaborative relationship with your clients as an agency. Because I get, I get really frustrated, Gini, when I sit there and I talk to agency owners who are putting together proposals and statements of work that talk about we’re gonna do three press releases and we’re gonna spend five hours on this and 10 hours on that.

And, and, and none of it’s how they bill. It’s just they’re just, It’s putting all of these requirements into it, and it all becomes a transactional relationship about the numbers of things that you’re doing, the number of press releases, the number of pitches, all that, and it’s not about the value that you’re creating.

It’s not about saying, okay, let’s have a conversation this week and figure out what are the best next things to do. It’s what did we promise you? Oh, we have to do three press releases a quarter. Well, let’s make sure we get one of those done by God. Otherwise we might not get paid.

Gini Dietrich: Ai-yi-yi-yi-yi. I would say the other thing that goes along with that, and you’re right, that also drives me crazy, is tracking your time for the benefit of the client so that you can send time reports at the end of each month with your invoice.

Why do we do that? We don’t need to do that.

Chip Griffin: Well, it’s because you’re billing by the hour, right? So you, so you have to.

Gini Dietrich: No! You’re not billing by the hour. You have a retainer. Oh. Oh. Not billing by the hour.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. Okay. That is, that doesn’t make any sense then. Yeah, because all these, but, but it happens a lot.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, it does happen a lot. And, and, and I used to do it too, and all, what I discovered is that clients would say, well, why did it take you 10 hours to do this? It should have only taken you five. And why are you spending two hours on this? And, you know, you came to this meeting and it was only half an hour.

Why are you billing me for 45 minutes? Because, You know, they’re not seeing the prep work that you did beforehand and, and that, that’s the kind of relationship it creates versus, oh my gosh, you guys have helped us generate X amount in revenue, or our leads, our lead quantity has gone up. Or, you know, I, my favorite one is I was out on the golf course and my buddy was like, Hey, I saw you guys in the New York Times.

That’s awesome. Like, those kinds of things are the things that you should be aiming toward. Not how many news releases did we write and did we get blog posts written this month?

Chip Griffin: Well, and, and the other thing is when you become transactional, it becomes, it, it takes the thought process out of it. And a lot of agency owners will tell me, oh, you know, I, I want to be more strategic.

Okay. Be more strategic then, right? Right. It’s, it’s not about getting the client to pay for you to be strategic. They’re already doing that. You may not realize that. You may not have put strategy in as a line item. Your clients want you to be strategic. Now we can debate for hours, I’m sure about how much they actually want you to be strategic at the end of the day and how much they really just want you to do what they tell you to do.

But, you know, if you ask them, they would certainly say they want you to be strategic, and you need to be thinking about those things when you’re working with the client. And, if you’re obsessed with the transactional and just the numbers that you’re reporting and that we, we can say that we did these things, you have lost sight of the strategy.

So take the time to be strategic, think about what you need to do, and don’t get all wrapped up in the numbers.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, I mean, certainly we have to have a scope of work and we have to have Sure, you know, all of those things. But I think you can do it really generally to say, we’re going to support X, Y, and Z.

So in our scope of work, for instance, we will say to a client, we’re going to support the launch of this product, or we’re going to create a campaign that does X, or, and we don’t talk about all the minutiae that goes into it. You know, we’re gonna do a podcast and blog posts and emails and blah, blah, blah, blah.

And social media. What we talk about is we’re going based on what you’ve told us, you have a new product launch, you have a new. Can you, something is coming up that you wanna be communicating. Maybe it’s a crisis, maybe it’s reputation management, whatever it happens to be. We’re going to create a campaign that is going to do X.

So it’s less about all of the tactics that you’re going to do, five blog posts and one white paper and daily social media, and three news releases and more about the kinds of things you’re going to do to help them achieve their goals.

Chip Griffin: Right. And look, there’s nothing wrong with, you know, when you’re talking to a prospect saying, well, typically when we work for a client, it looks like this.

And so we, we typically would do, you know, maybe a couple of press releases a quarter, probably, you know, a blog post roughly once a week. You know, some typical description of it. But it’s sort of like if you were being hired for a full-time job, sometimes the employer will share with you what a typical day looks like.

Does that mean every day looks like that? And then if it doesn’t that, that you have to go back and redo the day? No, it’s, it’s an example. And I mean, I have to say that I, I have never run into an issue with a prospect where I said, look, here’s what I typically do, but I’m not, you know, we, we don’t get locked into these details because we need to make sure that we adapt the strategy as things happen, as we get coverage or don’t get coverage.

And so we’ll continue to adapt it. And I always say to them at the end of that, and this is the number, this is what it’s gonna cost. But if at any point you feel like you’re not getting value, Or I feel like it’s taking too much of, of an input from me and my team in order to achieve these goals. We’ll just come back together and figure out how to rescope it.

Right? It’s that simple, right? We, we don’t need to have specific metrics in there, and if, if the client isn’t willing to go along with that, that’s a red flag. If all they really want is that you have counted off all of these things on a monthly basis, they don’t want you to actually be collaborative.

They want you to just be an order taker, right? And unless that’s what you want to do, I would walk away.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, I think, I mean, that’s a really good point. There are other red flags like you brought up earlier, that, you know, some of your clients say they wanna be more strategic, and what we have found is clients say, well, I really appreciate that you’re a thought partner in this with me.

Because we have conversations with clients about the things that are happening and the things that could be coming down the pipeline because of what they’re doing just based on our experience, right? And, and so we’re able to be collaborative and, and have that conversation. So it always makes me feel good when a client says, you’re such a great thought partner for us, because we can come to you with a challenge and you can help us.

You know, work through it. I have a, someone on my team who’s great, I mean, phenomenal at playing devil’s advocate. So I’ll say, let’s get Travis on the phone and see what he thinks, because he can shoot holes into stuff like, no, I’ve never seen, he’s so talented at it. But that’s what they’re, that’s what they’re paying for.

They’re not paying. Yes, they need all the other stuff done, but they’re paying for you to be the thought leader and for you to help them with the challenges that they have.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. And ultimately if you fall into the transactional trap, at some point the client’s gonna let you go because of it. Correct?

Because at, at, at some point they either decide they can get those same transactions cheaper, or those transactions no longer really matter to them, or they feel like you’re, you know, all you’re doing is just doing the, the simple things and you’re not really offering them anything new and proactive.

And so, If you fall into that trap, you are just setting yourself up for future failure. You’re not actually, you may think that you’re doing doing well in the, in the short term because you know, you know, we’re charge, we know exactly what we’re gonna be doing. We know how to price it correctly because of that.

Yeah. Okay. But that, that helps you for a short period of time, and eventually it’s gonna bite you. And particularly in tougher economic times, it’s the transactional stuff that gets cut first if they don’t feel like you’re being truly collaborative with them and that you’re not you know, being nimble and adapting to the environment around you, that’s the kind of thing where they come to you and say, Hey, we, we need to cut 50% of your budget, or we just need to let you go all together.

Gini Dietrich: Right. I belong to several Facebook groups for the industry, and there’s one that’s, I would say it’s more publicists than communicators. You know, like celebrity publicists and people like that. So I was scrolling through it last night and somebody said they had just lost a client. Just lost a client because the client was like, I can get this cheaper on Fiverr.

And it’s because all of the work that she was doing was transactional to this point, you know? So they’re saying, okay, if I’m getting three news releases a month and I’m, or a quarter, and I’m paying you five grand a month for that, I can go hire someone on Fiverr and pay 50 bucks a, a news release and be done with it.

So that’s the mentality that clients will have when you have this transactional relationship.

Chip Griffin: Right. And,the client fundamentally, really isn’t wrong. And I, I know I’m probably gonna get blow back from some of my friends in the agency community, but the reality is that most press releases are kind of worthless, right?

And, and the actual written press release. It really doesn’t matter all that much. I mean, I think way too much time gets wasted on just perfecting this press release just right. Nobody cares. Nobody cares. The press release is simply a placeholder so that you can pitch something around it.

Correct. Right. And so, so it’s, we have a press release, but, but here’s really what the pitch is and if you’re good at doing the pitching, okay, that’s something that’s worth paying for. The actual written press release. Yeah, you can get that on Fiverr or you can get something workman-like out of ChatGPT in all likelihood.

Yep. So don’t focus on that. Yep. Don’t, don’t be selling that, that you’re writing the press releases. Focus on the relationships that you’re building and that you may already have and all of the things that go into getting a successful pitch that actually produces clips. Right. That’s the important part.

Yes. It’s not the, all of the mechanics that lead up to it, nobody is actually paying for that. Nobody, I don’t buy a press release cause I’m gonna frame it and put it on my wall. I buy the press release because it’s supposed to get me media coverage. So focus on the outcome of media coverage instead.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. I mean it, yes. If you want to be more strategic, to your point earlier, if that’s what you wanna do and that’s the seat that you wanna play. Then those, these are the kinds of things that you should be doing. You should be thinking about how do we create something that helps them get the outcome? And what’s the outcome?

Is the outcome more revenue? Is it more volunteers? Is it more awareness? Whatever it happens to be, you can build a campaign around it that has the tactics in it. But doesn’t focus on the tactics specifically. It focuses on the campaign and the outcome of that campaign.

Chip Griffin: Right. Because your, your client doesn’t care how you got in the New York Times.

No. They, they don’t care whether it was a press release or an email or paper airplane that you threw No, you know, into the lobby of the New York Times building whatever it was. They’re just happy that they got in the New York Times. Well, assuming it’s a positive story. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Right. If you’re doing crisis out there, then your win is actually that it didn’t show up anywhere.

Right. But then you’re not probably putting out press releases. So, but you know, so, so you need to be thinking about what the client is actually looking for and have a relationship that’s developed around that. And if you develop the relationship around all of these boxes that you’re going to check, and the, the quantity of deliverables that you’re gonna provide, or the number of hours that you’re going to put in that is just setting yourself up for failure because it’s not what they actually value and it’s, this is not about, you know, fancy value pricing type stuff or any of those kinds of things.

Because I think most listeners know that I think that’s a bunch of malarkey for most agencies. But it does come down to making sure that you have that kind of collaborative relationship where they are seeing the value, where you understand the value that you’re really creating.

Gini Dietrich: Right, right, right, right. Yes, it’s hard, it’s challenging and I think most agency owners go to the tactics because that’s easy. But you, if you take the time, and we’ve talked about this on the podcast before, but take the time to understand how much it costs for you to run your business, how much it costs to have your employees and figure out how to price around that, that’s going to get you further.

And it does take some extra work, and it does take some elbow grease and sometimes it takes the left side of your brain, which is challenging because we’re mostly creative, right brainers. But those are the kinds of things that you should be thinking about as you’re building a new proposal or working with a new client so that you can focus on the strategic side of things instead of the tactical side of things.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. I, I would also add, if you find yourself in the position where either with prospects or clients, you find yourself talking a lot about the inputs, how many press releases you’re creating, how many hours you’re spending. If you find yourself doing that, pause for a beat and try to figure out why that is.

Is it are you talking about hours because you didn’t price it correctly from the beginning, and so you resent the amount of time that it takes? Okay, well, you now have a pricing problem. You need to address that, right? If you’re talking about, you know, how many pitches that you sent out, is that because you’re not having success in actually getting results.

Okay? Why is that? Is that a strategic problem? Is that a messaging problem? How do you solve that problem so that instead of talking about, you know, we sent out 50 pitches to different reporters, you instead say, we got five clips. Right? Right. From really good quality publications with the right messages in there.

And so anytime you are talking about those transactional items, ask yourself why? Because you’ll probably uncover something bigger and more valuable to focus your energy on.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, and I think it probably for most people comes down to pricing. It’s, you know, well, shoot, we’ve, we overshot the first half of this year based on all the things that you’ve asked us to help you with, and we are out of budget now, or we’re gonna run out of budget in September.

That’s a pricing issue. And so instead of talking about, well, we said in the scope of work that we are gonna do three news releases a quarter, and we’ve actually done six. The client doesn’t care. They don’t care. And so now we have to make up that money at the, at the backend. Like that’s not a good relationship to have and that is what causes the transactional relationship.

So yes, the pricing, and we’ve talked about this to death, but the pricing is the number one thing. And not only pricing, but figure out what it, what it costs you to do the work and then add your profit on top of that. And that’s what you’re charging the client. You’re not cost, you’re not charging them what it costs you to do the work.

You have to also include your profit margin in there.

Chip Griffin: Well, I, I, I think a, a good chunk of it is pricing, but I think, I think a good chunk of it is also lack of results. And the lack of results, in my view, comes about because you simply accept what the client says they want to do. You become an order taker.

Yes, sure. And I’ve been guilty of this over the years where I’ve got a prospect or a client says, this is what I want to do. And I know it’s not the right strategy, but they’re willing to pay for it. And so you sit there and you say, okay, well, I could do exactly what they want. And take their money, or I can push back and say, no, this is really what you should do.

And maybe they say, no, that’s not what we want. And so I lose the money. So at at some point you do have to figure out are you happy just taking that short term cash even though you know it’s not gonna produce results? I would argue you should avoid that because yes, that ends up being bad in the long term.

Yes, and, and if you are asked to do something by a client that is not, and particularly by a prospect, if they want a campaign that’s not going to work, don’t take their money and let it fail. Right. Don’t spend time just sending them how much effort you put in, right? Because there are no participation awards in agency client relationships.

Darn it. They don’t, they do not care how hard you tried. They do not bring out the T after you’ve swung three times and missed the pitch so that you can hit it and run to first base like they do in, in coach pitch, right? Which they do. I mean, I did, you know, you swing three times, you missed, okay, well we’ll just put it out here so you can get that hit.

Clients do not do that for you. They do not care that you tried. What a bummer. They want you to actually get the hit, and so if you know based on your expertise, your experience, that that is not something that you can do turn that work away. Or turn them around and get them to focus on something that you can execute on well, that can produce the results that they’re really looking for.

And oh, by the way, that also means you need to ask what they’re really trying to achieve, right? If you, if you just let them come in and say, oh, you know, we, we need to have a press campaign around this. Stop. Why? Why are we doing this? What are you hoping to accomplish? Is this sales driven? Is this brand recognition?

Is this, you know, how are you going to measure success? How will we know a year from now that the work we did together was the right work, was successful? If you can get to the bottom of those, then you can put together a much smarter campaign for them that will allow you to be collaborative and not just revert to the transactional so that you can try to protect revenue as best you can.

Gini Dietrich: I think the last thing that we should leave everybody with is that, and this is something that we tend to forget… as an agency, you are being hired because you are an expert. So you’re not an order taker, you’re not extra hands, hands and feet, arms and legs, whatever happens to be. In some cases you may be eventually because you’re jumping in to help, but you are being hired because you are an expert in something that the client does not have.

And that is so important to remember because I think we forget that and we’ve, we tend to say, oh, well they know their business better than we do. Well, guess what? You know the industry and your work better than they do. Which is why they’ve hired you. So always, always, always keep that in mind.

Chip Griffin: And if you don’t go find different clients or a different kind of work.

Yes. No, seriously, I, I mean, because I, I mean, I’m sure you see it, there are plenty of agencies out there pitching for work that they have no business pitching for. Yeah, for sure. And, and you don’t pitch for it just because there’s, you know, a couple extra commas in the, the proposed budget. Right.

You need to, you need to focus on the things that you truly are expert at that you can produce results for in industries that you know, so that you’re not spending time on the client’s dime trying to figure things out. Yeah, learning. That’s the work that does not work. It does not. So, alright, well we’re gonna be transactional because we do try to keep these episodes, you know, to a reasonable length and Well, and I gotta go get some lunch now, so, sounds good.

On that note. Sounds too. We will, we will draw this episode of the Agency Leadership Podcast to a close. I’m Chip Griffin.

Gini Dietrich: I’m Gini Dietrich,

Chip Griffin: and it depends.

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The Hosts

Chip Griffin is the founder of the Small Agency Growth Alliance (SAGA) where he helps PR & marketing agency owners build the businesses that they want to own. He brings more than two decades of experience as an agency executive and entrepreneur to share the wisdom of his success and lessons of his failures. Follow him on Twitter at @ChipGriffin.

 

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, the lead blogger at Spin Sucks, and the host of Spin Sucks the podcast. She also is co-author of Marketing in the Round and co-host of Inside PR. Follow her on Twitter at @GiniDietrich.

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