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The importance of having open, honest and trusting relationships between client and agency

For centuries, businesses had one thing in common: trust between the service or goods provider and the client. To place full confidence in a commercial establishment has driven the very nature of industry forward for a very long time.

While trust still plays a major role today, the inner workings between a public relations agency and a client can be very different, if not outright shocking.

A 2014 study between an agency and their client revealed that only 36% of agency partners believed their clients spoke freely and honestly, while 65% of clients felt the same about agencies. Yet, 98% of the respondents in the survey believed that trust leads to a better relationship.

Lizelle McDermott, Managing Director of public relations firm McD Squared, believes that openness is vital – but different ways exist in approaching it.

“We have always positioned ourselves as an extension of the client rather than an external agency. We spend a lot of time within the organisation to understand their solutions, strategy and how they operate. That allows us to communicate freely when we see the client veer off course,” she explains.

By building a reputation of open and honest communications over many years, McDermott has the confidence to advise her clients with their best interest at heart. “Our clients know that their brands are our biggest priority. I would not risk compromising trust, by not being truthful and calculated in my advice.”

With over 13 years of ICT marketing communications experience, for McDermott the single most important thing that clients should know about their relationship with an agency is commitment.

She explains that through a give-and-take structure, agencies can’t provide meaningful value if their line-of-sight of a client’s strategy, solutions, and people are obstructed.

“It is therefore very important that should a company decide to embark on public relations, they understand that there must be a commitment from their side in terms of time and resources as well.

Conversely, an agency should also invest an equal amount of resources – which in turn builds up trust.

“An agency cannot just sit back, accepting retainer payments and not try everything to ensure they deliver to their client. Sometimes all it takes is being creative in your approach to extract the information that enables you to deliver what the client needs,” she explains.

In the current uncertain economic times, retaining well-paying clients can be a big concern for an agency – but attracting new business can be even tougher. McDermott adds that experience or recommendations from trusted colleagues can open new doors, but the initial discussion is central to eliminating boundaries and building up trust.

“When I do meet a new client for the first time, I always have a very frank discussion with them to ensure they understand that there will be times we disagree on an approach, but that I always have their brand’s best interest at heart. While this does not always resonate with everyone, it has stood me in great stead in the past.”

Author Christopher Murphy once said that “rather than constantly focusing on finding new clients, focus on looking after the clients you have” - a belief that resonates with McD Squared.

McDermott explains that “Trying to find new business is a time consuming and costly affair for any agency. This again comes back to becoming an extension of your client rather than being an external agency. I also believe that one of our key strengths is that we continuously look for new ideas for existing clients, keeping the relationship fresh and proactively moving the brand forward as it evolves.”

It is tough to think about but when a breach of trust eventually occurs, McDermott tackles it head-on as quickly as possible. If there is a genuine breach, McDermott says, it is best to immediately identify the root cause and solve the problem from there.

A perceived breach is thankfully often a simple misunderstanding, but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be addressed. Any potential fractures in the agency-client relationship need to be consulted on, or “you run the risk of emotions festering and the whole situation being blown out of proportion.”

Even with trust as a foundation between agency and client, things don’t always go according to plan.

McDermott has in the past resorted to severing ties with clients due to conflicting business approaches, clients not being ready to implement a public relations strategy or feeling that McD Squared wasn’t the right fit.

She explains: “This is where it is crucial, to be honest in your communications with clients. It doesn’t necessarily mean burning bridges, but rather establishing whether you can overcome the differences to move forward with the relationship.”

But how important is it for both sides of the relationship to understand the wants and needs of each other? While decisive, for McDermott it is somewhat of a delicate balancing act.

McD Squared has in the past disagreed on a course of action with a client, which evolves the relationship beyond trust and into compromise.

“The only way in which you would be able to reach a compromise is if you understand each other well enough, trust each other to deliver on your core competencies and know that both parties have the brand’s best interest at heart.”

McDermott concludes by acknowledging that businesses are made up of humans, which means there is always the possibility of misunderstanding. “Having clear, open and honest channels of communications are a great way of mitigating or even eliminating the risk of these types of misunderstandings.”understandings.”


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