Dear Client: I Am Not Your Partner
I have been in advertising for a long time. Somewhere along the way, clients and agencies started referring to each other as partners. I don’t remember the month or year, but I feel like the use of the phrase increased as the business became more transactional. I assume this was supposed to make the agency feel better about our changing relationship with clients—the equivalent of renaming second mortgages home equity loans to reduce the stigma of borrowing.
Now don’t get me wrong. I have been called worse. When clients refer to me as a vendor, I feel like I should have a stall at a flea market and sell knock-off Nikes. I once met a client whose title was “Commodity Specialist.” Her job was minimizing my life’s work-- that hurt.
By comparison, partner is more acceptable, but I still object to the term, for three reasons:
First, it is disingenuous. Clients and agencies are not partners. In accounting or law firms, partners jointly own the business and share in the profits. In marriage, partnership means joint decision-making, like whether we should have children. Or shared decision-making, as in, I pick the movie, and my husband picks the restaurant. There is no client equivalent. I can never say to a client, “You pick the creative campaign, and I get first dibs on the media plan.”
Second, it sends the wrong message about the agency’s responsibilities and client expectations. I recently met with an agency to discuss an upcoming client meeting. The team informed me that there was no “prep” needed. We were partnering with the client to brainstorm new ideas. I explained that the client was flying across the country for this meeting and it is our job to ensure a successful session by brainstorming before the meeting and preparing a variety of ideas for discussion. The client’s role is to challenge and build on our ideas so they can get better and stronger. I explained that while we might work together to solve the problem, our roles are different, and the client expects and deserves our leadership.
Third, I am proud of the role we play with clients. Our job is to assemble an experienced team and provide the best counsel, to help clients grow their business by addressing challenges and taking advantage of opportunities. We function much like a law, accounting, or consulting firm and should be proud of it.
We are not partners. We are trusted advisors.
Stacey Singer is a Client Retention and Growth Specialist. You can reach her at (908) 313-6539 or firstname.lastname@example.org.