The short answer is it should be neither but you’d be amazed how many people fall into either of those camps when it comes to working with an agency.
I went to a meeting many years ago which was hard work and as we finished the client said: “Right, now to give my design agency a good kicking.” The whole raison d’être of an agency, it seemed, was to be kicked then kicked again.
On the other hand, I have read and heard so much tosh about how an agency should be its client’s best friend, play golf with them, have the MD’s partner meet their partner, go to football matches with them, have their children growing up together, even go on holiday with them!
I don’t believe for a second that an agency needs to know how the MD or Sales Director ticks in order to provide a properly personalised and customised service for the business. Whether the CEO loves Koi carp or Italian food is completely irrelevant to providing a quality service to the company that they head up. Obviously, understanding a client’s personality is one thing but getting involved in their private life (essentially for financial gain) is something else.
As the quote goes from Dr Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat, nobody likes a suck-up. Not least because lying barely concealed under the surface is the inescapable fact that an agency would only be playing buddies because the person they’re buddies with has their fingers on the purse strings and has the power to boost the agency’s profits – or reduce them.
So it’s always best to keep things professional. Sure, you can share banter, jokes and personal information at a meeting but don’t think for a fraction of a second that this means you’re the best of pals. The CEO is the customer, the agency is the supplier and the relationship needn’t go much further than that. Imagine if the local window cleaner or postal worker went for drinks with half of the people they provide services for – their livers would never forgive them.
And is an agency really a glorified kicking post? No. To put it simply, if you do not like the service that is being provided – and this applies to anyone, not just a PR agency – then get rid. Would you really keep going back to a restaurant where you were unhappy with the food and the service just so you could vent your spleen at the staff over and over again? Sure, some people think moaning has existential qualities but, really, this would be taking it too far.
The only way that such a restaurant would change would be if the owner was told to their face why the customer is leaving and not coming back. It doesn’t have to be rude, just honest, and a simple “Look, it isn’t working” will put everyone out of their misery. Likewise, the agency should not put up with bruising meeting after bruising meeting. They didn’t go into business to be kicked, put down, shouted at or embarrassed so when it becomes clear that the relationship has broken down, it’s time to move on.
There are millions of companies out there who respect the agencies they take on and who are absolutely brilliant to work with. They can be cordial without being a best mate, they can be critical without delivering a beating. But no agency should be buying their client’s kids birthday presents and no client should be getting pleasure out of inflicting pain on their agency.
So the rule is simple – if the relationship is a good one then enjoy it; if it’s a bad one then stop it in its tracks. Life really is too short to do otherwise.