BL&T No. 074: Getting Ahead of Client Challenges, Vendor-First, No Black Boxes

Agency Leadership

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"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

From Theodore Roosevelt [h/t Coach Joey for sharing this with the group of guys I work out with on Sundays. Hits home!]


I feel like I say this every week lately, but what a week! It's exhausting at times, but I'd much rather be running the marathon than standing on the sidelines. Even with all that running, though, there are those moments that make you pause, count your blessings, and think, I'm just glad I'm able to run.

Last Wednesday night, I got a text from my Mom. The kind of text where the room starts spinning and your mind revs up to 1,000 mph. "Justin was in a bad car accident." Justin is my younger brother. Now living near family, I dropped what I was doing and jumped in the car.

It is a miracle that he was okay. Another driver plowed into Justin's driver-side door, but luckily, his car took the impact well. The airbags also deployed and kept him safe.

Once the car got towed away, my parents, Justin, and I went out for a late dinner to blow off some steam at a nearby restaurant I probably hadn't been to in a decade. All I could think was how lucky Justin was, how glad I was to be nearby to be there for him, and most of all, how quickly life can change in an instant.

I'm not trying to be grim — actually, quite the opposite. Wednesday stopped me right in my tracks and made me reassess. It reminded me that most of the little things that pop up and get on my nerves throughout the week are inconsequential in the grand scheme. In those moments, it is my choice to be annoyed. It's me who decides to get tripped up, lose time, and fall behind. But that's time I won't get back - is that really how I want to spend it?

It's funny how themes emerge when you take the time to reflect on seemingly unrelated events. This week was all about aspects of time and not letting it get the best of me.

Getting Ahead of Client Challenges

On Monday, I had a call with a client to deliver some news. Long story short, I was letting them know that we'd be changing the staffing on their account. I wasn't sure how they were going to take it. There had been no trigger. No feedback. No bad experience. Between me and the Account Director, it just didn't feel good, and it seemed that there was an opportunity to make it better.

Not only did the client take the news well, but they also let me know that they had started seeking out proposals for the work in question. (What!) It was nothing like Justin's car accident, but at that moment, everything changed. The client continued, thanking me for "being astute" and getting ahead of any future issues. We left the call on a high note, but now, we weren't simply changing resources; we were pitching to keep the work.

I rallied the team, and days later, we presented our approach. I'm happy to report that they were impressed. By Friday, we won; or should I say, won back the work.

Ever lose your favorite shirt or a $20 bill? When you find it, you're elated. Then, you realize that nothing is different than before you misplaced it, but you're happy anyway. That's how I felt on Friday. But beyond that, it was scary to think what might have happened if we weren't paying attention enough to get ahead of it.

We all get high on the feeling of fixing things, but once something breaks, it's never quite the same again, even when it gets put back together. A ceramic bowl. A relationship. Same, same. I'd rather not wait for things to go South. As satisfying as it can be to be Mr. Fix-It, I prefer the "astute" path. Instead of waiting for a call to save the day, be observant, listen, be curious. Don't give anyone a reason to have to pick up the phone.


When it comes to the agency business, or any service business for that matter, building trust is critical. I know — this is not new. However, trust is just a tiny piece of the puzzle.

Last November, I wrote this piece about what goes into an unparalleled client experience. On one side of the model is trust, the other side, value.

In practice, trust looks like all the interactions that make us feel good — a client peeling back the curtain of their business or giving us creative freedom because "you're the experts." Value means the agency is delivering results. Results might mean increasing a specific KPI, or in some cases, making the Director of Marketing look good to their boss.

I didn't write this in November, so I'll add it now. If we're not adding value, our trust is worth nothing. It doesn't go the other way around. The scary part? When we feel like we've built trust with a client, we get comfortable, and that's when a part of the fire can die out. If we become complacent and wait too long, there's no going back.

Since the roll-out last October, I've been taking on the Executive Sponsor role on accounts. Even with all of the years of working with clients, aspects of my role have been eye-opening.

In the end, it's important to remember that we're a vendor first. Even if my client and I grew up in the same small town, getting poor results will bring everything crashing down. So, where does that leave us?

If I had to sum up my learnings so far, it's that there's no finish line to trust. Make every moment count, build trust with every interaction. But most of all, understand the dynamics at play. We all want to look good and do good, including every client stakeholder. The Director of Marketing wants to deliver for the CEO, the CEO for the Board. And so on. Know what value looks like for them, and first and foremost, make sure your partnership is delivering it. If not, don't wait to find out. There's always another vendor waiting for the chance.

No Black Boxes

Last week, I held our monthly Creative Marketing Services (CMS) Group meeting with my team. CMS includes the Client Service, Design, and CRM teams. We decided to use the time to share the initiatives that the managers on my team and I are focused on this quarter.

We kept it informal. I opened Notion, and we walked through the details of each initiative. I asked for feedback at the end. Some comments I heard (paraphrasing):

“It's good to know about these initiatives before they're complete. It's also to know the origin and why, rather than hearing ‘We’re switching it up today.’ down the line.”
“It's awesome to hear that there’s actual progress happening and great to see real steps.“

It turns out that giving the team this insight was priceless. It doesn't matter much effort leadership is putting in to make progress if no one knows what's going on. In the absence of information, people tend to create their narratives, usually for the worst. "No one is talking about this issue, so no one is working on it. I feel alone on this. It will never get better." In time, it doesn't matter whether these are true or not because the way the narratives made them feel takes over.

Since becoming a manager, I've always tried to be honest and transparent, but there's a difference between honesty and sharing. We can be honest in our everyday interactions, but it's often the stuff that seems unimportant, the stuff we're not sharing, that really counts. The reality is that what seems insignificant to you might be keeping an employee up at night.

Thought Starter

What am I waiting for to go wrong instead of facing it head-on? Am I on the sidelines or in the race?

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