Self-commoditising behaviours only serve to embolden client-side bullies and hamper your commercial performance.

Did you see Mark Pollard’s recent article about how hard agencies find it to speak out about abusive client behaviour?

He rightly calls out the horrors that agency people endure when “power sits in the hands of those paying the checks”. He’s also spot-on to highlight how agencies have accepted “abuse… as a feature of the client-agency dynamic, not a flaw”.

But is this “vendor mentality” really imposed on agencies by omnipotent clients? 

Perpetuating the imbalance

As an industry, we need to be more aware of our power dynamic with clients. Have you ever ended a pitch by fawning ‘thank you SO much for the opportunity to share our ideas with you’? Yup, me too. 

What about regularly fielding BAU calls at 8pm or immediately yielding when gently commanded to ‘sharpen your pencil’ on rates? 

Behaviours like these give your power away, unwittingly deepening the imbalance, as well as emboldening the bullies. This isn’t good ‘client service’ – you’re broadcasting your willingness to be that subservient vendor.

And make no mistake – clients are trained to cultivate your sense of powerlessness. 

Time for change

This commercial naivety has birthed a form of Stockholm Syndrome. Rather than looking after themselves, agencies sympathise with their captors’ priorities. No wonder mild misbehaviour gets downplayed as just ‘one of those things’ – as Mark wrote, “a feature… not a flaw” in the client relationship. Not cool. 

At a time when many agency leaders are wrestling with talent, ‘entitlement’ and evolving workplace values, something’s got to give. Young people won’t tolerate this crap like we did, back in the day.

So what can you do? 

Get serious about partnership

A simple first step is found in language. As with many overused words, agencies’ vague aspiration to ‘partnership’ reveals a tell-tale lack of conviction. 

If you want to be seen as a valued partner – and heaven knows why you wouldn’t – then you need to get beyond woolly rhetoric. How many times have you said or heard ‘we’re partners to our clients’? But what does that even mean? The reality is that all parties understand ‘partnership’ differently. 

Unsurprisingly, procurement people immediately think of the commercials. Your day-to-day clients also understandably act in their own self-interest, seeing ‘partnership’ as you going ‘above and beyond’ – also known as ‘over-servicing’.

Worst of all, when agencies pause to consider what ‘partnership’ actually means to them, it’s usually just being treated with basic courtesy. That’s a recipe for codependence, not balanced, peer-to-peer client relationships. 

So once you’re serious about partnerships, how can you create them? 

Beyond the fear

Real change means getting beyond the fear factor – that nagging internal voice insisting that if you ever say ‘no’, then your agency will be fired in a heartbeat. 

In fairness, that voice is compelling. Homo sapiens’ search for certainty shows up everywhere – from the profound to the mundane. Ever decided against some exotic new delicacy because you’re sure you won’t like it? I certainly have. And how many of us avoid failure by staying within our comfort zone?

This default to the devil-we-know is massively self-limiting. That’s why it comes up so often in Co:definery’s coaching work. But this fear is really just resistance to change – in this case, exacerbated by a conditioned ‘fawn response‘.

So it’s hardly surprising that redressing the power imbalance feels scary and out of reach. Hence relying on courageous, caring leaders to take a stand when a line gets crossed. 

But if you’re serious about change and willing to step towards the unfamiliar, then you’re ready to deal with the problem at source.

Expertise is power

Ultimately, if you behave like a commodity, then you won’t be treated like a partner. It’s far easier for clients to abuse their power if you hand them yours too. That’s why it’s so dangerous to believe that they hold all the cards just because they pay the bills. 

For a start, that’s just not accurate. You pay airline pilots and surgeons, but would you tell them what to do? No, me neither.

Trusted advisors lead the client conversation and they don’t take any shit. Once your proposition, behaviour and language are congruently designed to signal scarce expertise to clients who genuinely need it, you’ll earn authority and influence. And if anyone does try to take advantage, your team will feel empowered to push back. 

This stuff shows up everywhere. For example, when your agency is selling to clients, are you punting your wares or exploring a fit? The former exposes your agenda, the latter prioritises theirs. 

Every day there are moments of truth that set expectations and demonstrate you’re a professional. Expertise, empathy and client-centredness are your proof points. Partnerships are your reward.

This is where your competitive advantage thrives. Happier people, better work and healthier profits.


Image: Thomas Kelley