10 things I learnt when I went client-side

By Simon Derungs, 17 January 2023 | 6 mins read

Yes, I have been there. Four years client-side after a long career in creative agencies really opened my eyes to a world that I thought I knew. Turns out I really didn’t know much of anything at all.

Becoming a client was an eye-opener, I can tell you, and not always in the ways I’d expected. Here’s 10 things I learnt:

1. It’s a different culture

Client companies have a different work culture to agencies. Not worse, just different. Colleagues must show mutual respect, HR departments are strong, and policies must be adhered to. Of course, this can sometimes knock the edges and excitement out of a working day, but it also prevents rudeness, discrimination and job insecurity – maybe it isn’t all bad.

When I joined a client company, I was immediately struck by the differences, but not in the way I’d expected. Just try to order a stapler. Or ask a simple question of HR. Or seek quick sign-off on a project.

Basically, clients face constant small challenges that agencies cannot begin to imagine.

2. Stakeholder management really is difficult

Most agency people have a pretty good idea of what stakeholder management entails, and the challenges that clients face when they leave the funky agency building and return to their concrete bunker in Slough or Staines. The truth is that you don’t. Really, it’s so much tougher than you think.

Each stakeholder will have their own agenda and priorities, so seeking consensus is like nailing jelly to the wall. Meaning that clients are left with many confusing and contradictory instructions, with little idea of how to knit it all together. Think about that next time you demand consolidated feedback.

3. Commercial pressure is constant

It’s the commercial pressures that drive most clients. The advertising is undoubtedly an important element, but this is a cost that can be questioned when you’re not very obviously helping drive the numbers.

It’s easy to listen to Mark Ritson and others preaching the importance of ‘the long and the short’, and the short-sightedness of clients who do not ‘get’ this. That’s all well and good, but how do I sell a shedload of widgets this week?

I read recently that average CMO tenure has fallen to its lowest level in over a decade (just 40 months). For many clients, there is no “long”.

4. Respect your clients, even the dumb ones

In my time client-side I came to realise just how professional most clients are.

I’ve heard many disparaging things said amongst agency people about their clients. Sometimes, complaints can be justified – if the client’s inconsistent, impolite, gives poor briefs or feedback, for example. But criticising clients, even in the privacy of your own agency, surely isn’t good. I remember my old boss Mike Greenlees once responding to a colleague who was effing and blinding about his clients: “they may be bastards” said Mike, “but they’re our bastards”.

5. Don’t just listen to your clients, understand them

Your client is not just there for the fun of it. Their job is on the line. Their boss is in the room. They’re scared of what you might say, because the more you’ve done your job of being innovative and ground-breaking, the more difficult their job will be. If your work does well, you get the credit. If your work does poorly, they get the blame and could lose their jobs. So cut them some slack.

6. That rare thing called proactivity

Spectacularly obvious, remarkably rare. What I discovered client-side is that a little proactivity can transform relationships.

Think ahead, and give your clients the insights and tools to do the same. How about an insight into customer trends that could affect their business. Maybe vox pop their competitors’ customers. I could write a long list, and I promise you, clients appreciate these things more than you realise.

7. Training that sucks the soul

I’d never really encountered ‘mandatory training’. To be fair, this is usually necessary, but it really is terrible. There’s a lot of it, covering such subjects as the regulatory landscape, and how to properly position your office chair.

It isn’t training as you know it – rather, a series of drawn-out modules and tricksy multiple-choice questions. In the real world, sales may be plummeting and your visitors have been waiting in reception since last Tuesday, but you’re basically paralysed until you’ve successfully completed the 28 modules in section 2a.

Chances are this is why your client hasn’t returned your call, so please have some heart.

8. Client priorities are not wrong, but they are different

Most likely, your senior clients will have personal scorecards. This is how they are assessed, remunerated, promoted or passed over. So it’s unlikely that they’ll expend much time and effort on matters that don’t directly impact on that scorecard. That brand-building idea will not interest them if it doesn’t drive next quarter’s acquisition numbers.

And agencies don’t help themselves. Here’s a piece written some years ago by the senior marketer Mike Sommers which describes just how tone-deaf agencies can be to the pressure faced by their clients.

9. Try to demonstrate you have skin in the game

It’s fair to say that agencies don’t always treat their clients’ money as if it was their own. Assuming the clients will just cough up, for instance, rather than truly seeking smart ways to achieve most for least.

Agencies sometimes seem to forget the value of money. And it’s the small things – I vividly remember getting an early train to a TV shoot, walking up the hill from the station only to see a fleet of black limos arriving with the various agency staff.

10. Does your dad know you’re not at school?

When I became a client I was immediately struck by the extreme youthfulness of the people who worked in my agencies.

The IPA estimates that fewer than 6% of UK agency staff are aged over 50, with an average age of 34. Just to put that in context, the over 50s make up 35% of the UK population, and account for 76% of the UK’s financial wealth.

And yet this highly lucrative audience is hardly represented at all in agencies, or by the work that agencies produce.

I simply can’t understand why agencies place such little value on experience, because I can tell you that it’s what clients value most. A few grey hairs beats a roomful of enthusiastic youngsters any day of the week.

In summary

So there you have it, the ten ways in which my move client-side surprised and enlightened me. Us agency folk honestly think we know our clients, which is maybe the biggest barrier to truly understanding our clients and giving them the work and service that we all strive for.

When we get it right, the work is better, and the clients can get back to completing those tricky mandatory training modules.