Why you need to talk to clients like they’re at a barbecue

Society, etc founder Mike Sharma makes the case for a more honest relationship that gets past the flashy distractions.

By Mike Sharma

Of the countless concerns that race through an agency leader’s head every day, probably none ranks higher than client satisfaction. That’s why we spend so much time and effort tracking it.

But who would have ever thought that the solution could be something as simple and as unexpected as the backyard barbecue?

Here’s how one big exec in advertising once put it to me:

“You know, my answer to success in this business is really quite simple. For me, it’s all about the barbecue. If I can get my client to come over for a backyard barbecue, I have him unguarded and so get to hear his real concerns. Not the flashy distractions. But the big things that are keeping him up at night. And that’s so important because it means that I can focus my resources only on what matters.”

That kind of brutal honesty between client and agency is the best advantage an agency can have.

More than ever, results matter. From the brand manager to the CMO, weekly or monthly executive dashboard and scorecard are how marketing, and overall businesses, are measured.

That’s why we work with our clients to get access to the data that matters. I’m not talking about tracking pixels and conversion rates. I mean the real data: topline sales data, sell-through results, customer data so we can analyze churn, retention, LTV and barriers to path to purchase.

That then puts us in a position to measure and optimize our campaigns by focusing our resources only on what’s important. There’s no wasted time and energy chasing red herrings or issues that may seem significant, but in the end, really don’t count.

We don’t need to worry about the irrelevant things that, in our industry, often come in the form of ridiculously nebulous metrics like engagement, attributed conversions, or reach and GRPs.

Though this all sounds like the smart thing to do, it’s not always easy to achieve. It takes great clients who have the confidence and the will to champion the cause internally so that we can get visibility into the data and information that we need. In the case of one of our clients, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, it took weeks – and I mean weeks – of intense reviews by legal and privacy. It also required us as an agency to invest more in ensuring data protection and confidentiality.

But it’s all been worth it. Both in terms of relationship and, most importantly, business results.

As an added benefit, we’ve moved to having more open and meaningful conversations with our clients. We operate more like partners, joined at the hip, both striving for the results that truly matter most.

It may not sound like much, but this represents a huge shift from the vendor relationships our industry has been regressing towards over the past few decades.

So I urge all of you – clients, creative agencies, media agencies, independents and multinationals and holdco’s – to go for the Barbeque Advantage. To paraphrase an old proverb: The best time to have started this was years ago. The second best time? Right now.

Mike Sharma is founder and president of independent media agency Society, etc.