Why Agencies Should Work for Free — Lessons from a Procurement Lunch

July 13, 2017

By Phil Johnson, CEO of PJA Advertising + Marketing



Well, not entirely free. Let me explain. Recently, I had lunch with a procurement manager from a technology company that we’re pitching, and she gave me some insights from the other side on what it feels like to work with an agency.  

A couple of points jumped out at me and changed my perspective a bit on how we do business. My procurement friend suggested that agencies should give away more of their strategy and positioning work for free and make their money on implementation and execution. Say it ain’t so. Isn’t strategy the most valuable treasure we sell? But this was her point: once an agency has won the business, the way it can expand the relationship is by continually demonstrating fresh ideas. She sees this as part of the sales process and the investment that an agency has to make to nurture a relationship.

My response is that agencies should share enough thinking so that the client is confident they can solve the problem, and even more importantly, gets excited about the potential of an idea. That should be enough to do the trick. Like most things in life it’s always better to give a little more than you have to.

A second point was closely related and came from her internal clients who are marketing managers. They often complain that when they call their agencies looking for a small favor, the first thing they get is an estimate. It’s hard to talk partnership when you put a price on everything, whether it’s help with a presentation or some quick-cut research.

To look at it a different way, my friend and I once visited a bar that had just installed a computerized alcohol dispenser, obviously for portion control. Put the glass under a nozzle, push a button, and dispense a perfect 1.5 oz. shot of Absolut. My friend argued that this was going to increase depression rates in the neighborhood. His reasoning: when you go into a bar after a hard day’s work, you’re looking for a friend in a sympathetic bartender who will listen to your problems and maybe go a little heavy on the pour. In this case, rule-based automation killed the human connection. It probably wasn’t good for business either.

Agencies can fall into the same trap. Money is important but the relationship is even more so. These working relationships often go beyond business and cross into friendship. It’s an art to know how to balance the two.

Having heard what the agency world looks like to a procurement professional, here’s my advice to all our staff working on the front lines with client partners: Above all else, think like a human being.When you see an opportunity to make the client’s life a little easier, just do it. That’s good behavior in any situation.

Understand that most clients don’t have budget for everything they need to achieve. Learn to spot the difference between billable and unbillable. Within reason, look for ways to help with the unbillable when you can afford to.

Finally, always ask, “where can I do something extra that will open the door for future opportunities?” Let’s be realistic, we still want to see our businesses grow.

Believe me, I’m not trying to give away the store. I want to make a profit. Good people are expensive. We like to pay bonuses. On the other hand, client relationships are also hard won, and they’re not guaranteed. We should invest in them and protect them. If we’re serious about being treated like partners, we need to act like partners from the start. I think that’s all my procurement friend was trying to say.


Phil Johnson is CEO of PJA Advertising + Marketing. Follow him on Twitter at @philjohnson.


The views and opinions expressed in Marketing Maestros are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the ANA or imply endorsement from the ANA.

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