How to choose your clients

Appointing an agency could be seen as a choice for the client. But agencies can have just as much say in the matter as their clients-to-be.

But choice doesn’t appear by magic. It has to be worked on and created into being.

Chris Lumsden, Partner at brand consultancy, Good talked me through how they do it.

When a prospective client comes to you with a potential project, what do you do first? 

“We pause. And we think. Lots of work opportunities tick the ‘we could do it’ box. The important question to answer for us is ‘do we want it?’ We’ve found if we don’t answer both questions with a ‘yes’, we can end up doing work we don’t want to do. In the past we’ve blamed the client. But it was our fault really. If you don’t want it, don’t take it.”

How does this work in practice? Chris shared a couple of his recent experiences with me. The first was a brief for a piece of strategic thinking. A long RFP with a request for creative tagged on the end. Imagine this landing in your in-box. What would you do? Here’s how the conversation went:

“This was a strategy brief. We asked, ‘how many other agencies are involved?’ ‘Four’ was the answer. We asked, ‘have any of them questioned the brief?’ ‘No’, was the answer that came back. ‘Then we’re not doing it’ was our response.

‘This is a strategic brief that we would be perfect for. And you’re asking for pictures. You wouldn’t pick a strategic partner based on a picture. It’s not necessary’. The client responded, with ‘it’s just the way my guys are. They buy with their eyes’. We were in a dialogue.”

What is happening in this conversation?  Chris explains his thoughts:

“The more we dig, we get beneath the surface, and the more we learn. We are probing, testing our clients, exploring the opportunity to see it fully. We ask questions, and we listen to the responses. And assess if it’s for us. If the client is not for changing their mind, this weeds them out. And if the client listens to us, and decides to change their approach, it weeds them in.” Here’s another example.

“A client came to us. They looked like they fit our criteria. It came out in conversation that we were speaking with a brand manager, at a mid-level within their business. We know we work best with direct and open conversations with the C-Suite.

We dug some more.

We discovered that the C-Suite were not yet on board with hiring an agency or doing work in our space.

We declined to move forward. And that’s where it stopped.”

What’s the recipe for having these conversations? There are four ingredients: self-knowledge, agency, strength of character and a sense of where we’re headed

Self-knowledge: “We know where we do our best work and we work where we are best. We seek out these opportunities. We stress test them when they come along. If they don’t pass, we walk away. A quick no is better than a long goodbye.”

Agency: “We believe we need to be active in the sales process, not a passenger in someone else’s buying process. And more than this, we believe we have a responsibility to ourselves and our future clients to match ourselves to the right opportunities. We have captured this in our client engagement policy which sits on our website.

Strength of character: “We’re honest with ourselves. You can still get drawn in. Things can seem and feel right. It’s best to control your effort. To steer clear of early emotional involvement. It’s taken us a long time to reach this point. You don’t just flip a switch. It takes an honesty about the business you are in. A clarity around who you are suited to and for. And knowledge of how you add value.

A sense of where we’re headed: “We’re going to a place that plays to our strengths. To a place where we can have as much influence as possible. As far upstream as possible. We ask of each project, ‘will it move us in this direction?’”

What comes through strongly from speaking with Chris is that it’s not just about the work you do. It’s how you manage the business. And the two are connected.

“Taking time to understand who you are and how you add value is time well spent. You have to commit to doing this work. And notice your development. And when you do, you get better at noticing what you notice, spotting the tells, the signs of ‘not right’, noticing the opportunities to challenge. And being able to take them.”

This is work worth doing. If you’re wondering if you’re up to it, Chris suggests “consider the alternatives and ask yourself, which is scarier, challenging a pitch or burning your own resource?”

For him it’s the latter and he admits, “I’m just not brave enough for that.”


Thanks for reading. Has this piece got you thinking? If you’d like to work on an aspect of your self-knowledge, agency, strength of character or where you’re going as an agency, I would be delighted to coach you. To start a conversation, drop me a note.

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