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The Business of Creativity: 3 Ways for the Client/Agency Relationship to Work

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I asked a contractor doing some work on our house for an estimate. The first pass was a lump sum, and he was reticent to line item it. I explained that I too am in the service business, and that I had no issue with him making a fair profit. I just needed to know what the base cost was, and what premium my wife was adding to the party. I'm sure my clients sometimes wonder the same. So here are three things to keep in mind when dealing with your agency.

1. Talk About Value... Even if It's Awkward

Value is generally understood as the ratio between price and quality. We get it -- in the service business, the value equation is hard to peg. In work for hire, agency models are most often based on time -- the goal is to get the best work in the shortest amount of time. Clients use leverage to minimize cost (and therefore time). But, fact of life, creativity needs time to "bake" -- it is an iterative science where mistakes are made (see Creative Inc., Ed Catmull's [head of Pixar and Disney's] new book about creative management], since the creative idea is not a tangible thing, it is not as efficient as, say, making widgets).

Even though we all know that value often boils down to dollars, it's a known fact: Whether in friendship, marriage or business, money makes things a little more awkward. But while money is necessary to keep companies afloat, at the end of the day, the opportunity to do great work simply jazzes us creative types up. So please, let's have a candid conversation. We recently went through an RFP process where the client was moving to an agency relationship (from working with individual freelance vendors), for stability and consistency of high-quality work and service. The budget, however, did not change to address the new strategic partnering objective. Champagne taste: beer pocket, as they say. To be clear, you needn't kill a fly with a bazooka either. Define your own expectations, and recognize the market parameters.

2. Good Partnerships Are Mutually Beneficial

In most healthy relationships, there's a fair amount of give and take. Each partner needs to feel like they're getting something in return for what they're giving. In the service business, however, the requirement is to give before receiving. The truth is, most agency people -- I'll speak for CBX -- are like puppy dogs; we want you to love us and give us treats because we want to please you more than anything (it is an emotional business, and trust me, you want it that way). It is amazing what the little things mean, like saying "thanks for the effort," or saying you're sorry that the team worked the weekend. Don't worry -- you don't need to remember birthdays or buy flowers (that's our job). Just be aware and respectful and we'll bend over backwards for you. Hell, like a well-treated waiter who offers dessert on the house, we'll even give you more than you were looking for. After all, there's nothing like working for someone who appreciates what you're doing. We're currently working with a client who was formerly on the agency side. He's good enough to verbalize that he is empathetic because he's been on our side. He then unapologetically asks for deliverables in unreasonable amounts of time. The thing is, we are more than pleased to deliver as best we can because our client, while demanding, is straight with us. He's part of the process, quick to praise and as a result, our relationship is strong.

3. Trust

Respect is something earned everyday. Respect earned over time equals trust. And trust is everything. As an agency guy, I'm most proud of our long-standing relationships with clients. Nice guys who do mediocre work don't last too long. Great work done by jerks is not sustainable either. Truly great firms have a secret sauce -- a magical combination of business-oriented thinking driven through a highly creative environment with delightful white glove service. We strive to be intimate with our clients -- because our relationships are where the value truly lies. Signs of a trusting relationship show that we can anticipate on your behalf, communicate without speaking, motivate teams on all sides, and innovate to further the business without formalities. Added bonus -- trust is wonderful in good times, but its value is clearly felt in the toughest situations.

The results of our work together will be judged by the success or failure of your brand and its products. At CBX, we believe that connectivity to the lives of people is what matters most -- it is our mandate. But make no mistake, the metric that underscores these connections is money, and that's the truth.