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Clients with Commitment Issues: Why the Agency May Not be the Problem.

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Are you thinking about leaving your Agency?

Why?

Reflect for a second, because it might not be their fault.

You, the client, might have created this.

I am the first to talk about dodgy Agencies who have mastered the art of style over substance. A lot, in fact. In a sales pitch, they’ll love bomb you, buy you dinner and promise you the earth. They’ll say they love you, slag off and try to discredit the other guys, turn on the charm — anything it takes to get you into bed.

But, as soon as the sun comes up and the afterglow fades, they fail to follow through on the simple things, let alone their bigger promises… and then, they move on to the next one.

These Agencies exist. Too many of them. But it is important to note that there are good guys too — you just need to notice, and trust (again).

It‘s not us, it’s you.

Let me be clear: I am not blaming you, the person reading this article. I like you. You’re nice. I know you have your own stuff going on. You have targets to meet and accidentally named a date, which is far too soon, and are under constant pressure by stakeholders to have stuff yesterday.

You are under pressure with budgets. You have heaps of stuff to do. Your boss doesn’t care about the quality of the work, they just want results. I get it.

We are all under pressure.

But we matter in this relationship too.

It’s time for the talk.

That fact is, we are all frustrated, struggling to communicate, and neither of us are stopping to catch our breath and actually think about whether this is healthy.

It is out of control.

Agencies and freelancers are under increasingly more pressure to squeeze our rates to compete with the players. We work on spec, pitch for free, working for less and less money, putting pressure on our staff to meet unreasonable deadlines, and hiring more and more cheap and offshore labour to not go out of business.

Many of us are bending over backwards so you don’t leave us, and compromising ourselves, our dignity and our lives in the process.

It is unhealthy. If you are with a good Agency but are still unhappy, it is time to dig a little deeper and get to the core issues.

Maybe it’s time to work on yourself.

Look, I accept that it may be easier to jump from bed to bed and avoid facing your own dysfunction, but ultimately, face facts: it is at the expense of your long term happiness, and hurts other people who are just trying to treat you well and have your best interests at heart.

I know it hasn’t been on purpose. It’s a combination of clients not knowing the impact of what they are doing, and Agencies being afraid to say no and create healthy boundaries out of fear of losing the client.

People don’t shell out money or commit to a project with the intention of it ending…especially ending badly.

But it does go wrong. A lot. And often repeatedly.

I will tell you though, that as a client, you don’t see what happens behind the scenes, even at the best Agencies. You only see shortcomings, bugs and fixes. You didn’t see how we shuffled everything around for an ambitious deadline or request, pulled all nighters, late night brainstorming sessions and disrupted our entire week’s schedule to make you happy.

And then you weren’t happy. And then questioned the invoice, paid us less, and then the poor Account Managers cop it from all directions, simply because they were too afraid to say no because you expected too much, for too little, too quickly, and kept threatening to walk.

Partnership = love, care, trust & respect.

I’ll tell you now: The answer to your problems may not be to court a new Agency. If you want a true partner that knows you well and has your back, it is important to know what you bring to the table, and where your deficits are, before deciding who is at fault, and if it is salvageable.

Reflect. Truly reflect. Then reflect some more.

Because sometimes, it isn’t the exes, it’s you. You are the common denominator.

What can you do?

Here are a few things you can do to make sure you are the best client you can be and how you might, upon reflection, be able to restore a good working relationship with your Agency.

(If you identify with some of these and have a problem, I am happy to have a private chat with you about how you can fix it.)

1. Figure out what you need upfront.

Do not ever utter the phrases: “I will know it when I see it” or “you are the creative, surprise me!”.

Ever.

As great as it would be, most of us are not endowed with the gift of ESP. We understand that you may not be terribly interested in the details, and we should not overwhelm you with jargon. But a proper requirements and Kick-Off meeting to go through the brief, with you and ALL stakeholders fully engaged, is absolutely critical.

If you do not communicate or participate, do not be surprised if we come back with something you don’t like, or doesn’t meet that corporate style guide (that we didn’t even know about).

Every project is a team effort and requires some commitment from you, the client in order to be successful. We are providing you with the knowledge and expertise to get it up and running, but you need to bring the most important aspect to the project — you, your business, and any information that is related to it.

2. Read the documents.

See those documents that we spent hours preparing for you? Yes, that stack right there. That proposal that we spent a day writing that you didn’t even look at? That TL;DR email that updates you on progress?

Read them.

It’s for your own good.

None of us like reading agreements, quotes, fine print or website briefs. It’s even more cumbersome writing them, believe me! It’s boring. You’re busy. I know. But it is really important that you know what we are offering, what your obligations are, and what things are going to cost. Because when you ask for the 4th revision of the design, there will be no surprises when we say “sure, but it will cost you and delay the project”.

In many cases, it’s not just standard boring legalese in these documents. In mine I have a job spec, what you get for your money, what is included, and what happens if you don’t like the designs. You know, really important stuff, like scoping and whether ad spend is included and what it will cost you.

If you read the documents, there are no surprises. And no accusations of us ripping you off or misunderstandings over scope and timings, which makes us happy. And a happy us means our best work. And our best work means a happy client.

Also, don’t request reams of pointless documentation. It’s a 3 page microsite, not a 3 year SAP implementation. Chill.

3. Be honest.

It may surprise many to read this, but most creatives, myself included, are not in the business of making enemies. We are in the business of trust, and collaboration and most of us rely heavily on referral business. In my case, I like to find solutions to problems, even if the solution isn’t my services.

So please, just talk to us. Tell us the truth. Tell us your real problem so we can help.

If you do not like something, especially at the formative stages, please, please, PLEASE SAY SOMETHING. DO NOT SMILE AND NOD.

Yes, I am a “creative”, but this is still a business. “Artists” and Diva Creatives do not belong in Agencies. Designers are professionals, we deal with feedback every day, and collaborate to solve problems.

Any designer who expresses annoyance with you for not being 100% happy (assuming you are a “good client” and follow these steps) is in the wrong business.

We don’t always get it right, and we don’t always work it out when the client is not thrilled. But we can’t read your mind.

4. …but be constructive

Why don’t you like it? What are your concerns? Does it not meet the initial brief? Does it not fit? Why? How did we misunderstand?

It is one thing to be brutally honest. It is another thing to be a high maintenance or abusive client that exploits our desire to a) get paid b) make you happy and c) refer us.

For example, if a designer has produced more than 2 or 3 separate designs, chances are that you are not giving them adequate constructive feedback to do their job. If you have already gotten to this point, ask if there is something you are not communicating clearly enough.

They’ll usually tell you.

5. Don’t micromanage

You are hiring a professional, and good Agencies don’t just do things for no reason. If you have a concern about something, ask. There is usually a good reason why we choose one particular technology over another, or why your logo is in the upper left hand corner.

Give us the opportunity to use our experience to help you.

As an aside, if you find yourself tinkering at all with the work, step back. Resist that urge to open MS Paint and decorate it. Also resist the temptation to tell us how to do our job. After all, you hired us, right?

Years ago, I had a client (who, obviously, is not a client anymore!) say that they were the “designer” and I was just the “technical person”, despite having created several beautiful designs that the client then played with in Photoshop. (If you ever want to upset a creative and get yourself dumped on purpose, here’s a tip — go ahead and call them the technical person, or any variation that devalues our years of experience.)

If you find that your web project is consuming a lot of your day, then you might be a micromanager.

It’s a fine balance.

6. Make sure you are aware that sign off is final.

This is something that needs to be underlined and bolded. Every project gives clients the opportunity to review, test and sign off a design, development, Keywords, ad copy, whatever. You need to pay attention during this time, consult stakeholders and get everything finalised during these windows.

Stakeholders changing their minds is not on us. That’s on you to manage. Sorry.

If the site is being developed and you decide you want to make a change after post-QA or post-launch, that is probably the easiest way to a) stall a project b) cost you a fortune and c) annoy the hell out of us. Unless there is a glaring mistake (which there shouldn’t be, because you did read the proofs, right?), do not ask for changes at later stages without expecting a bill.

I always allow plenty of time and opportunity for revisions, and operate with a LeanUX approach (therefore multiple opportunities for feedback). If you are a Good Client and are following the above steps judiciously, you probably would have already taken the opportunity to express your thoughts, been honest about the process, and been clear about your requirements. If you get to the production stage and you change the spec, it will cost you.

7. Pay on time

If there is one part of my business that I hate more than anything on earth, it is chasing people for money. I dread having to make follow-up emails, and especially the follow up calls.

If you are going to be a Good Client, please don’t ignore your bills or dangle the carrot of payment to extort more work. Treating your Agency like a line of credit will build resentment, even if they don’t say so. Chasing people for money is a hassle for all involved.

I don’t think that there are many Agencies out there that are unreasonable about money. In fact, more often than not I have done the odd free task, or not billed for time we should have, or not charged for fonts, or whatever, and all I ask in return is that you pay on time.

Most of us just want to know that we are going to be paid and when that will happen.

We have to live too.

8. Pay reasonable rates, and stop pitting us against each other on price, Offshore, Fiverr, whatever.

Stop it. Seriously. Right now.

We are professionals. Do you haggle with your doctor? No? Then stop. If you want a second opinion, get one, but don’t threaten us, either in subtext or overtly. We deserve respect, as professionals, even if we are a creative business. We are (usually) University educated, live in capital cities, and for those of us who are not 20 year olds with parents supporting our Internship/Freelancing career, have families to support.

You want to go to Wix? Do it. You want to go offshore? Do it. But don’t use that as a tool to manipulate your Agencies into not being paid a fair rate for their work.

The result of lower rates? Agencies then have to squeeze their margins, use interns, juniors and offshore staff and you, the customer, get a lower quality product. Your Account Manager will be 23 years old, in over their heads, burned out and less contactable due to client load or staff turnover and it will ultimately affect the quality of the work. Ironically, this means that junior Accounts people are afraid to stand up to you or manage your expectations with expertise, and basically, you’ll be getting to the point where you would have been better off going to India anyway.

Price sensitivity, over value, is a race to the bottom and it is bad for you.

It is normal for Agencies to charge $160+ per hour. Many charge a lot more than that. It is what it is. Our hourly rate is not our take home pay. So, baulking at our rates for a service that requires skill and experience is… well… rude.

And disrespect and fear does not produce good quality creative work.

That hourly rate is not just “hours to make a page”. It includes overheads, taxes and all the account management time we spend placating you when you are threatening to go to India or another Agency.

I sack clients who make threats unless I drop my rates. More Agencies should. Sorry, but they should. I only work with clients who trust me and do the right thing and value what I do, because a) money isn’t important to me beyond survival and b) if I did that I’d be better off taking a $150k/yr job in an Agency.

So, I know this has been long. But I hope it has been worth the read and you can have some food for thought about your Agency. It really isn’t all that difficult to make things run smoothly if we all just stop and acknowledge what it is we contribute to a toxic relationship.

I am happy to have a chat (not selling you anything!) if you need any help. You can email me at tea@kintsugi.com.au.

Love,

Téa

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