The ad agencies I’ve worked with tell me I’m a good client. Perhaps they’re just being nice. Or maybe there’s something to it. I’ve been on the agency side as well, and I’ve witnessed my share of diva clients. And yet, it’s no secret that companies benefit when their agency feels good about the relationship. The agency is more willing to spend additional time, stretch their creativity, and explore new solutions when they feel valued and taken care of.

I figure there are three ways a company can motivate their ad agency. The first way is to throw money at them. Who isn’t motivated by money? I’ve never had the advantage of a truly humungous budget, but I’ve seen folks tolerate a certain amount of abuse when the money is rolling in. At least with tons of money the agency can afford to hire an account executive who has a high tolerance for psychological pain.

The second way to motivate an ad agency is to offer a wide open creative challenge with very few restrictions. Basically, a blank slate. Think Got Milk. When Goodby Silverstein got that assignment, the challenge was to market a generic, white beverage in a completely new way. And what they came up with was revolutionary. This also required the client to stay out of the way and not meddle. Believe me, this is a hard thing for a client to do, especially when there are committees making the final approval decisions.

I’ve never worked at a company with monstrous advertising budgets, and the brands I’ve managed haven’t allowed for blue-sky creative. So I’ve had to be a good client.

Being a good client is like being the stage manager for a theatre production. The stage manager is that hard working person you never see, buzzing around behind the scenes making sure everyone has what they need. Yes, that makes the agency the actors, the ones who get all the adulation and applause. But what you get, for all your hard work, is a flawless production.

If you want a great performance from your agency, you’ve got to take care of the back of the house. It starts with providing a solid script. This means making sure your agency has all the information they need about your products and your company. Share your research. Detail how the product works, what makes it unique, who buys it, and how it’s sold. Let them in on the challenges you’ve been facing and the changes you’re planning. Invite them to visit key retail locations and talk to the people serving your customer. Be sure they fully understand the regulations that could impact advertising claims. In short, brief your agency, and brief them well. And don’t stop. Keep your agency well informed with what they need to perform at their peak.

Your job doesn’t stop there. You play a very important role as curtain time approaches, when the the campaign will be unveiled. Make time for a dress rehearsal, a meeting to review the concepts at a preliminary stage. This is not so you can try to pick the winner or second guess creative decisions. Rather, it’s the time to help your agency polish their concepts and avoid any obvious mistakes or missed assumptions. They’ll help you look good if you help them be the best they can be.

Prior to opening night, the big reveal, be sure to brief the agency so they know what to expect. Let them know who will be attending the presentation, what role they play, and what potential biases they may be bringing into the room. Does someone have previous advertising experience? Is there a committee member who can’t stand ads with cute puppies? If you have the information, share it. The agency may not delete the adorable animals from their concept, but they can be prepared to discuss how that choice connects with the given strategy.

That’s right, when you’re the one managing the agency relationship, you don’t get to just sit back and watch the show. Your hard work will help assure a successful long-term engagement. In addition to providing a continual flow of information and feedback, you’re the one making sure approvals are done on time, input from internal teams is consolidated and clarified, and results are communicated. And this all needs to be done with honesty so your agency knows they can trust you. This means there are times you may need to deliver uncomfortable news, like a change in the budget or a request to modify the creative. Do it, and do it clearly and with compassion.

Some people in the client role figure as long as they’re the ones writing the checks, the agency should perform as they’re told. And to a certain extent they will. But believe me, they won’t do much more than that. If you want creativity, you need to set the stage for it, then step into the wings to watch the magic happen.

Copyright Liz Behlke 2016