Five things your client is not telling you

By Simon Derungs, 23 January 2024 | 3 mins read

A few years back I worked on a campaign for Swiss bank UBS (this was before they lost $50bn by the way). The campaign, ‘You & Us’, focused on the power of relationships, and was extremely successful in building the UBS brand.

One of the ads we made was a 30 second film featuring clients just staring at the camera, not saying a word. The message was clear – “we listen very closely, especially to the things you don’t say”. It was a terrific insight into the nature of agency/client relationships. Take a look at it here:


Of course, all agencies believe they listen to their clients. Yet in my time as a client, and certainly as an intermediary, I saw time and again how agencies are driven to move a conversation forward, without stopping to understand what their clients might be really thinking.

So, what are your clients not saying to you?

1. Things are OK.

They like the work you’re presenting. It ticks boxes. It’s on brand. Meets their brief. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. They want to be polite, and reasonable. It’s just… they don’t LOVE it. Which can ultimately only end badly for everyone. I recall in my time at BT an agency leaving a meeting, clearly delighted that they’d got agreement to some work. What they didn’t see was the collective eye-roll from my colleagues as soon as they’d left the room. They were not convinced, but had bigger fish to fry –  internal stakeholders, challenging approvals to navigate and stretching sales targets to meet. Read the room!

2. It’s the small things.

In relationships, it’s the top that’s left off the toothpaste once too often that ultimately causes a crisis. No matter how much they like the strategy, the creative and the awards, client gripes are often about the seemingly trivial – missing deadlines, absence of updates, going over budget, being late for meetings, ignoring client feedback. It’s client service at its purest, and as such, often the easiest to fix.

3. They do want to talk, but no one’s listening.

They want a serious conversation about where you’re heading. Agencies tend to develop tunnel vision when a campaign is in progress – pushing everyone forward to delivery without ever glancing back, or stepping back to ask the simple questions – is this right? Could it be better? Will it work? And to have that honest conversation with their clients. It’s often the case that the right agency people are not present; sometimes clients need a grown-up in the room, a partner and advisor, who ‘gets’ them and says what they’re thinking.

4. We can’t get there from here.

Sometimes none of the agency’s options seem right to the client. I’ve sat in meetings where the client is invited to comment on a range of positioning statements, but not to question whether they’re all off the mark. Of course, clients should (and often do) speak up, but they may be too polite or frustrated to bother. This happens all the time in new business tissue meetings. “Which version of blue do you prefer? Well that one (though I’d really prefer green)”.

5. OK I’m done.

A golden rule of account management is that silence isn’t. If your clients stop challenging, stop asking questions, stop calling you, or even answering your calls and emails, then all your alarms should be screaming. It’s a sad fact that when clients make the decision to review agencies, or move projects elsewhere, the last ones to hear are the incumbents. Of course, by then it may be too late, but the sooner you realise and have an honest conversation, the more likely it is that you can recognise the issues and pull things back from the brink.

My point, of course, is to turn up your listening skills up to eleven. Ask the right questions without fear they’ll give the ‘wrong’ answers. Remember that the silent clients often require the most attention. This classic ad for Army recruitment is always worth remembering.

See things from their viewpoint. Watch body language. It’s best done face-to-face, harder on Zoom, very difficult on the phone, almost impossible on email. You can’t read the room when you’re not in it. So go see them, ask questions and genuinely care about what they’re thinking, even if it’s inconvenient, seemingly ill-informed, or even sounds dumb.

And remember that old saying, ‘complaints are good for business’. A willingness to embrace this truth can turn every client, no matter how silent, into your loudest advocate.

At The Maverick Group we’ve been listening to the things our clients say for 21 years, and even more closely to the things they don’t say. That’s why our client relationships are long and successful. Indeed, much of our new business comes from client referrals, which says it all. If you’d like to be listened to, please get in touch.