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Why (and how) clients should manage their PR/marketing agencies

Agencies need to be managed. Not just by their own leaders, but by their clients.

Being managed by the client doesn’t mean that you’re simply an order-taker. Active management by the client tends to ensure better results and stronger relationships.

In this episode, Chip and Gini discuss why it matters so much and what good management looks like.

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.

And I’m Gini Dietrich.

And today I’m going to talk about how to manage you, Gini.

Gini Dietrich: Great. I love to be managed.

Chip Griffin: Right after this.

Pity the soul who has to manage you, but, um, yes, but you own an agency and it turns out that clients do need to manage their agencies. And so that’s what we’re going to be talking about today, how a client can manage effectively and how you as an agency can help your client to be a better manager. Of you.

And I, and I know that some of you are sitting there saying, but they don’t need to manage me. They just need to hire me and I’ll do what I need to do. I, you know, they don’t, this is not, I’m not taking orders. Management is not about just taking orders.

And I can tell you if they’re not managing you, you’re going to end up with a bad relationship.

Gini Dietrich: For sure. And so a couple of things. Number one, you have to really think about it from the perspective of information exchange, because if they’re not managing you, you’re not getting the information that you need to be able to do your job.

Number two, like when we work with clients, we talk to Our, our day to day client, literally day to day. Right. Um, but I also think there’s, there, there are many organizations today who have hired ad hoc, right? So they have a solopreneur or freelancer that’s doing paid ads and they have an agency that is doing content and they have a boutique that’s doing our media and they have a web design firm.

So they have all of these agencies. And I think one of the biggest challenges is how to bring those agencies together. Um, so that the client only has to spend one hour a week instead of six hours a week to, to exchange information and make sure everything’s working. And one, I think we can talk about this, but one of the things that I’ve seen work really, really well is when the client says, listen, here, here, here’s everybody, here’s what everybody’s doing.

Here are our goals. We’re going to meet once a week and we’re going to do it. We’re going to have conversations about where things are, what are, you know, where we are against goals and all that kind of stuff, but when it’s left up to the agencies, It never really happens. So I think there’s, there’s a mix of agency having to manage the client and clients having to manage the agency.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. I mean, it’s, and we’ve talked a little bit in the past about how agencies have to manage their clients to keep them within boundaries and that kind of stuff. And that’s, we’re not so much talking about that today, although there is an element of that to the conversation. Um, and I, I should say this, this came about, Based on a couple of posts that we saw recently, one in the Spin Sucks community and one on the PRSA members discussion forum where in one case it was a question about how do you take a group of agencies around the world and manage them effectively so that you’re, you know, you’re, you’re acting basically as, as one organization and then the other one was, PRSA members.

Uh, from someone who had concerns about how, uh, the agency that they hired was performing. And, and it, it appeared that it was perhaps because there was some misunderstandings about the level of management that was required in that particular case. And so, uh, You know, I think as we look at it, it’s important to understand why the management is important.

And it’s important whether you’re hiring one agency or multiple agencies. And again, if you’re the agency, you want that because it helps you get the information. Particularly if there’s multiple agencies, it helps you make sure that Nobody’s stepping on each other’s toes, right? It gives you that, that opportunity to make sure that you are on the same page with everybody involved.

Gini Dietrich: I will tell you that one of the most successful client relationships we have ever had is they had multiple agencies. We were sort of their content. Well, we were their pace of model agency, but the only thing we weren’t doing as part of the pace of model was earned media. So we, they had an agency that was doing that.

And then they had an agency that was doing web and brand and all that kind of stuff. And every Friday, he, the, the chief marketing officer brought the agencies together on a zoom call, and it wasn’t a check in to see what everybody was doing. It was, this is what’s happened in the business this week. So, in some cases, he might Transcribed Present the investor deck that they had just presented because they were looking for funding, or he might go through some changes in messaging or whatever it happened to be, but there’s always something happening in the business.

And he did a really nice job of keeping people up to speed. But the thing I liked the best about it is. The information and document sharing. So the earned media agency kept a tracker of all the news that was happening in the industry, and they kept it open so that you could, you could access it and it was great from our perspective because we could go in there and go, Oh, that’s interesting.

We should write some content on that. And it helped us kind of work through it. So we, there were no turf wars from that perspective. And I’ve certainly seen it work on the other end where there are turf wars, but they handled it really well at the chief marketing officer was really experienced. Just so.

And he came from the agency side, so I think he knew how to do it. But I’ve seen it work both ways, where it works really, really well and where it’s absolutely miserable.

Chip Griffin: Yeah, and I think that you’ve, you’ve there touched on sort of the cornerstone of good management, which is the very first thing you have to do is set up a regular meeting schedule.

Yep. And that might be depending on the work. It might be weekly. It might be bi weekly. It might be monthly. It shouldn’t be any less than monthly. Um, you know, it really depends on the exact nature of work that you’re doing. And, you know, I’ve talked with some agencies and they’re like, ah, you know, I just like to meet whenever we need to.

I don’t, I don’t want to be burdened with these calls that don’t have a particular purpose. They have a particular purpose. It’s so that you can communicate and stay on the same page. It’s the same reason why I tell all my clients, you need to have one on ones with your direct report employees every single week.

Whether you think you have something to talk about or not, you need to do the same thing with your clients and they should be insisting the same. from you. And it’s again, that’s whether you’re one or you’re one of many because it’s, it’s that opportunity to make sure that you’re figuring out what’s going on with your client.

What’s, you know, what’s hot, what, you know, what other pressures they might have so that you understand it and they can share it with you at that same time.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. And I would be hard pressed to find, I mean, I was, I was, there are probably some agencies. that you wouldn’t have to have conversations every day.

But for the work that we do, because we’re so focused on external comms and thought leadership, we have to be in the business. We have to understand what they’re doing. And I mean, daily, certainly, you know, if you’re doing paid ads or you’re doing website design or whatever, then okay. Once a week or every other week, probably.

Probably works. But for the work that we do, there’s no way we could do it that little.

Chip Griffin: Right. And it’s, and it’s particularly important to do that when you’ve got the multiple agencies so that you can talk through those things. Because if I’m the client, I certainly don’t want two of my agencies both contacting the same media outlet or, you know, the same micro influencer or whatever you want, you want to make sure that we’re all on the same page.

And it’s, you know, the, the lines that we used to draw in the past that were, you know, You know, nice and black and white lines, you know, you, you know, you’ve got North America, you’ve got Europe, those things don’t mean anything anymore, right? I mean, half the time, you don’t even know, you know, where some influencer may be physically based.

You don’t know, you know, the media outlets cross lines all the time these days. So you see, you can’t do that. And so you need to have that, that opportunity to deconflict. Particularly if you’re geography based with your agencies, um, if you’re capabilities based, then you still do because again, there’s that blurring because a PR agency may well get into even some paid stuff these days.

And so if you’re not having those, you’re, you’re having an opportunity for your own team to be working at cross purposes with each other.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. I mean, I think, I do think the best relationships are when the client manages the agency because. I mean, it’s human nature to procrastinate when you’re not when your feet aren’t held to the fire or you don’t have a deadline.

And for me, I’m hugely deadline driven. So if you’re like, yeah, I need that in the next two months. Guess when you’re going to get it on day 59. Right. So but if you’re if If you’re managing the agency and staying on top of the things that need to be delivered and the results that need to be, that need to happen, then I think you have a better chance of actually having success because people are people.

We, we, we procrastinate. That’s just what we do.

Chip Griffin: Right. And, and part of this came about from a question of, of how to get the agency that they had working for them to be more proactive, to be more strategic. It’s something that, that I’ve seen clients say in the past, I’ve, you know, uh, I, I’ve, Probably said myself as a client from time to time over the years.

And the reality is that generally when you’re asking that question, it’s because you’re not actively managing, you’ve taken the, you’ve got this idea that you can hire an agency and it’s sort of fire and forget, you know, you’ve hired them. Now you can be hands off. They’re just taking care of it for you.

But the reality is you need to stay engaged and you need to help them understand, you know, how, you know, what are the subtle changes in your business that they need to be able to respond to? What are your concerns about the results that are being produced? Because I mean, I might as an agency, look at it and say, look, we’re producing great results.

Like the, the metrics that we have are all good. Yeah. But you on the client side may say, but that’s not exactly what we need. Or, you know, maybe the quality of the leads is just not quite. Yes, we’re getting the leads, but the quality isn’t quite there or whatever. You need to have those kinds of conversations as an active manager of your agency that will help them to do their job better and help them provide strategic input to you based on what you’re telling them.

Gini Dietrich: Right. And I think, I mean, you can’t, it’s really hard to stay abreast of the things that are changing in business. It happens every day, right? So if you, if you’re a true partner, you have to be involved in that. And, and that’s why I don’t like to call it management because I don’t think it’s, I don’t think they’re managing us.

I think that it’s, it’s, It’s working in conjunction as a partner. And just like you with your employees, you don’t like hire somebody and be like, okay, go do your job and check in once a month. That’s not how it works. There are some days I would like it to work like that, but it’s not how it works.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. I guess I want to push back on that a little bit because I do think it’s more management than partnership.

And I know a lot, I know a lot of agencies like to say we partner with our clients. And, and I know some agencies don’t even use the word clients. They refer to them as partners, which. Frankly, when I talk to agency owners like that, it confuses the hell out of me because you’re referring to partners and I’m like, I’m like, I thought you owned the business on your own.

Oh, you’re talking about your clients, right? What? I get it, but you’re not really partners. You really aren’t because partners are, you know, you’re sharing risks, you’re sharing rewards. We’ve talked in the past about how you can take on an equity partnership with your client. And in those cases, yes, you are a partner.

Yes. But the reality is that most agencies are not. Partners in that sense. I mean, yes, we want to feel kumbaya. We’re, you know, we’re all in the sandbox together, but it’s not quite the same as being a true partner. And so we need to understand that there is that, you know, manager report type relationship that does exist because they can fire you at any time.

Partners you can’t just fire, right? I mean, partners are with you and getting separated is very difficult. That’s fair.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, I would, I would agree with that, that perspective. Um, I think

Chip Griffin: we’re, no, no, no, it’s one of those, it’s partners is a trigger thing for me. I think we’re,

Gini Dietrich: it’s a trigger for me too, but on the flip side, when, when, when a client calls us a vendor, that just makes me like, not a vendor.

Not a vendor. Um, so I think that, and that, that’s truly why I call, call ourselves partners, because I’m, we’re not vendors. We’re not, you don’t just hire us and forget about it. Like you don’t, like you would the shipping vendor or the postage vendor, or

Chip Griffin: I agree. I agree. I don’t, I don’t like the term vendor.

Although at the end of the day, I mean, technically that’s still what you are, right? I mean. Because just like they can stop buying widgets from, you know, whatever manufacturer they’re buying them from, they can stop buying agency services from you. You know, it really is that simple, so, you know, I, I don’t like the term, but it’s probably an accurate one.

Gini Dietrich: Anyway, back to the topic du jour.

Chip Griffin: Well, but it, but that is part of the topic because it is, it’s how both sides perceive the relationship. And so I think it’s, I think it’s important if you’re on the agency side to help educate your client and help them understand that they do have an accurate relationship.

Give role in this. They they have to. Yeah. And part of the problem is, and we’ve talked about this before, whenever you’re in the, the business of trying to sell your agency services, you want to get through that business development process as quick as you can and have the client smiling through the whole thing and thinking that you’re just gonna solve all the world’s problems for them, because that’s what gets them to sign on the dotted line.

But they need to understand that they have responsibilities too, and you need to be clear. Before that contract is signed, what you expect from them, how much of their time they need to invest, what kinds of things they need to do. I mean, when I was doing a, a, a web development agency, I had in there specifically what they had to do in order for us to meet the timelines.

I had in there, you know, that they had to provide feedback within a certain number of days of receiving the different versions so that they would understand if they didn’t, Those deadlines that are promised in the contract aren’t going to be met. Smart. Right? And so if you set those expectations up front, it doesn’t solve all the problems you’ll still have.

Well, you know, I know it took me an extra day, but so what? You know, but you’ve at least got it there, and you’ve, and you’ve, you’ve done what you can to try to frame it. If you just say, oh yeah, we’re going to produce these results of whatever kind, and you haven’t set those expectations of their responsibilities, it’s going to be problematic at some point in the relationship.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. I think that’s, that’s really smart. Um, you know, I was in a new business meeting the other day and the prospect was going on and on and on about how they’ve had all these agencies in the past and they haven’t worked out and the agency has promised all the stuff and they’ve never gotten any results.

And so I said, well, how much time did you spend with them? And she’s like, well, I hired them expecting them to do their jobs. And I was like, right. So you’re part of the problem, but it was a red flag for me because I knew that if that’s how she had performed with the agencies in the, in the past, that we wouldn’t be successful either because maybe for the first month she’d be super excited and she’d come to all the meetings and she’d share the information, but then she’d get busy or overwhelmed or start traveling for trade shows or whatever happens to be.

And we wouldn’t hear from her. And then. Try as we might to get the work done as best as we can without being without knowing what’s happening in the business, it would end badly. And so I had to very politely decline to work with them. But that that’s a red flag for me. That’s a red flag. Absolutely. When somebody says something like that.

Chip Griffin: Yeah, I mean, think about it this way, you know, hiring an agency is is very similar to hiring an employee. Yes, absolutely. And so if you hired an employee and just said, here’s your job description, I expect you to do it. you know, send me a monthly report. What are the odds that that employee is going to perform well?

Not very good. And if you have that same expectation of your agency, you’re not going to get the results that you want. Because the reality is you need to be much more hands on, particularly in the early stages. And if you’re not, then you’re going to run into problems because they’re going to head off probably in a different direction than you had assumed.

They may not be providing the The right ideas because you haven’t done what you needed to do to help guide them. Because particularly at the start of relationship as an agency, I don’t know that much about your business. Right. Right. I know what I read outside. I know what what I’ve seen on the website.

I know what you shared with me in our two or three hours of conversation we probably had before we signed a contract. That doesn’t give me nearly enough information to give you good, smart, actionable ideas.

Gini Dietrich: And that’s why I like the strategy session that we do in the beginning, because it gets us really deep, really fast.

And it helps us understand what’s going on, but that, but things change so quickly inside organizations. Like we have one client that hasn’t met their sales goals this year. And I knew about that three months ago, instead of now, and they’re telling, they’re starting to tell their agencies now that they’re going to have to, Reduce budgets because they haven’t met their sales goals, but I knew about it three months ago and we’ve adjusted.

We’ve spent the last 90 days adjusting with them because they see us as I won’t use the word partner, but they see us as outsourced employees.

Chip Griffin: Yeah, and I think that’s fine as long as legally you’re not. Yes, and we’re not. So we want to stay on the right side of all those taxing and regulatory bodies.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Gini Dietrich: No, I mean, they just view us as part of the team.

Chip Griffin: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s the ideal relationship between a client and agency. And I’ve had that many times over the course of my career with my own agencies, with other agencies I’ve worked in. And those are really powerful because at that point, you do start to understand the business.

You can really deliver the results. Yes. Yes. In a meaningful way. Yes. Um, and I think, you know, one of the things that, that you need to look at, too, here is, you know, we, we talked about, um, early on about the, having multiple agencies that you’re managing. If you have multiple agencies, you either need to devote a lot of your own staff time to managing them, or you need to have a first among equals of the agencies who is taking the lead on a lot of the day to day management of things.

And, and both models can work. I’ve, I’ve worked within both of those kinds of models with larger organizations that do have multiple agencies. I don’t necessarily have a preference for one over the other, but you need to have something in place, some plan in place. You can’t just, you know, say, okay, I’m going to do this as if I was managing one agency.

You really have to have a plan of attack when you’ve got multiple in it. It does require a lot more time and energy to get it done properly.

Gini Dietrich: And, and I think thinking through what makes most sense, like the aforementioned new business meeting I had, she said, well, you know, I have, because I have all these agencies or work with all these agencies, I have like six hours of meetings a week.

And I said, why don’t you just do one meeting with all of them? And she goes, huh? Okay. Um, so yeah, I, but I think you have to figure out what works best for you. And I will also say that your agencies have to be willing to work well in the sand together. Because if you have, if you have an agency that is the lead agency, and then you have other agencies, quote unquote, reporting into that agency, that can cause some, some turf wars and some, it can cause, it can cause problems.

Chip Griffin: Which can I just say is so stupid. So stupid. But I have seen it over and over and over again. And, and you end up with this, this ridiculous set, I mean, even if you don’t have a first among equals, right? You know, even if it’s all reporting directly to the client, you inevitably have some agencies who are, you know, being accommodating and some who just see turf, right?

And, and, and they’re either focused on protecting their own turf or stealing your turf. Yes. It’s so dumb. Yes. It inevitably leads to problems. Yes. It generally doesn’t work out for the agency that’s focused on their turf at the expense of all else. It just, it makes no sense to me. So if you’re an agency and you’re listening to this, Be one of those agencies that plays nice in the sandbox.

Work well with other agencies. If you understand what their expertise is and what your expertise is, you can work fine together. Because even though we may say, well, they’re just like us and we could do that, you probably can’t. You probably, not as well as them, at least not in the eyes of the client. And guess what?

The client’s the one who matters.

Gini Dietrich: Even if you can do it. as well or better. That’s not what you were hired to do.

Chip Griffin: It’s the same again. Just like being an employee, you know, don’t sit there. And if you’re an employee, try to keep undermining your colleagues and coworkers, right? That doesn’t end well.

Gini Dietrich: No, it does not.

You know, it’s funny as when I worked for the big agency and, and different offices. And different departments in those offices would work with clients there. There were turf wars there too, because you had, you had profit centers and the, you know, the Kansas city office would be like, well, we can do that.

We don’t have to send it to New York. And the New York office was like, no, you can’t work here with the media. And you had those turf wars all the time. And I remember thinking, this is dumb. We all work for the same company.

Chip Griffin: No, I mean, look, I, I, I have, I mean, I, I have been in enough large organizations over the course of my career that there’s turf wars in all of them.

There’s, it’s, it is inevitable that you have them. They are dumb at every level, every place they exist. Um, it, it, I just, I don’t understand the mentality, but it is certainly what a lot of people do. Just resist it. Just resist it. Don’t, don’t be part of it. Don’t fall into it. Don’t say, well, he’s doing it.

So I have to do it to, you know, find a way to work together. And if you, if you are the client, then, you know, make sure that you’re sniffing these things out. Right? So, so to your, your point of having the one weekly meeting instead of the six weekly meetings. Absolutely agree with that, but you still need to have one on ones periodically with each of the agencies.

Sure. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Because, because nobody’s going to tell you about the turf war on that six agency call. Right, right. They will say something on the one on one call. Yep. And, and you as the client need to know about them. Right? Because you don’t want to, to find out six months down the road that these two agencies have been fighting.

Feuding behind the scenes and, you know, doing whatever they can to undercut each other and, you know, make each other look bad or whatever silly, stupid stuff they’re doing. So make sure that, you know, if you’re doing weekly with the group of six, at least do monthly one on ones with the individual agencies so you have that opportunity to suss out those issues and, and frankly deal with, you know, the specifics of that particular agency relationship because there will be things that you probably want to touch on outside of the group.

Gini Dietrich: Absolutely. Yes. I’m, I am notorious for having a zoom call with a client and their team, and then picking up the phone and calling the day to day client and saying, this is just what just happened. This is why it happened. This is what we agreed to. And these are the next steps. And I have that separate conversation all the time.

Just did that this morning. Um, so. And that’s, that kind of behavior is what, A, makes them believe that you’re playing nice in the sandbox, B, treats you as part of the team, and C, builds immense amounts of trust.

Chip Griffin: And if you’re the client, you have to insist on that, playing nice in the sandbox. You have to.

You cannot, you cannot tolerate them. going at each other. The other thing you have to do is you have to enforce information sharing between the agencies, because a lot of times agencies, even if they’re quote, unquote, playing nice, they may say, Well, you know, here’s my report, but it’s proprietary. I don’t, I don’t want you sharing it with the other agencies or whatever, you know, or they may send it directly to the client instead of copying the larger group that’s on that six agency call every week.

That’s BS. It is BS. You know, there needs to be transparency between these agencies. You need to be sharing your reports on your results, what you’re doing, those kinds of things that everybody knows and can see. Because guess what? You probably can learn something from what another agency is doing and what’s working and what isn’t working.

And you should be just as willing to, to learn from them and share with them so that they can improve. Because that’s, I mean, a rising tide really does lift all boats. I know it’s one of those. Thanks. You know, horribly cliched sayings, but it really does work. And if you can help all of the agencies in your group perform better, you’re going to make your relationship with that client more sticky.

And if you’re on the client side, you’re going to get better results if that’s happening. So enforce information sharing and don’t allow turf battles. Absolutely.

Gini Dietrich: And I love, I love the report sharing because I, To your point, I learn all sorts of things. It helps me do my job better. It helps my team understand how other agencies work.

I, I freaking love it.

Chip Griffin: And just say, look, copy everybody. Yeah. Like, the first time they send it straight to you, say, nope. Copy it. Copy the group. Yep. Copy the group. Yep. Love it. And, and, if you do that, cause see, management is really, at the end of the day, it’s about communication. Right? It’s, it’s about making sure that you as the client are being clear about your expectations, the agencies are understanding it, that you’re sharing information about what’s working and what isn’t, and you’re also sharing ideas.

And if you do all of that, then the management relationship is going to work, whether you’re dealing with one agency, many agencies, or frankly, no agencies, because you’ve just got an internal team. Right, right. It’s still the same stuff you’ve got to do. Absolutely.

Gini Dietrich: Yep. Yeah, totally agree.

Chip Griffin: Anyway, all right.

Gini Dietrich: Well, I think we’ve, I think we have managed to cover this topic.

Chip Griffin: So, on that note, we will wrap up this episode of the Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m Chip Griffin.

And I’m Gini Dietrich.

And it depends. Thank you for listening to the Agency Leadership Podcast. You can watch or listen to every episode by visiting agencyleadershippodcast.com or subscribing on your favorite podcast player. We would also love it if you would leave a rating or review at iTunes or wherever you go to find podcasts. Be sure to check out Gini Dietrich at Spin Sucks. com and join the Spin Sucks community at Spin Sucks. com slash spin sucks community. You can learn more about me, Chip Griffin, at smallagencygrowth.com. Where you can also sign up for a free community membership to engage with other agency leaders. The agency leadership podcast is distributed on the FIR podcast network, where you can find lots of other communications oriented podcasts. Just visit www. firpodcastnetwork. com. We welcome your feedback and suggestions and look forward to being back with you again next week.

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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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