Thinking of giving client services the boot? Think again

Ed HudsonOurs is an industry based around empathy. After all, we spend much of our working day asking: “If I were the target audience, how would I respond to this?” We have to be good at putting ourselves in our clients’ shoes, too.

In turn, brands are increasingly keen to hear from our strategic and creative leads, and many agencies have responded by dramatically reducing their client services roles. After all, couldn’t a good project manager take over much of their function?

But I think there’s still a lot to be gained from good client service input, provided it’s commercially-led, able to contribute towards effective creative campaigns, and has benefited from the right training. Here’s why:

Shifting skillsets
Client service people have always worn several hats, but their role has evolved over the years. Digital has rocket-charged working practices; agencies are lauded for delivering effective and striking campaigns quickly and on budget. One consequence is that client servicing has shifted to being more about logistics and detailed campaign-related comms, and less about strategic and commercial considerations. It’s no wonder there’s a temptation to replace client services with project managers; they’re almost doing that job as it is. But what jobs aren’t they doing that they should be?

Commercial nous
To really deliver, we must be fully attuned to what our clients are trying to do commercially. That means reading their annual reports, knowing what key products are coming down the track and finding out how many units are being shifted during a campaign. It means really getting inside the mindset of the company and its brand, and then closely aligning this with the agency’s strategy and creative work.

In tough economic times – and things are going to get tougher, even with the Covid vaccine – this approach is even more critical. I don’t think an efficient project manager and a friendly client lead are a worthy replacement for someone who has the time and skills to understand a business inside out, and can help translate that into effective strategic, creative campaigns.

Agency workings
And not just the client’s business. A client services specialist should have a thorough understanding of how agencies themselves make money. It might sound obvious, but how much educating do we actually do on this? They can’t be expected to pick it up by osmosis; it should be part of their ongoing training. As agency leaders, we need to invest in them, and that investment will pay off. A client services team represents an agency’s leadership; it needs to be commercially intelligent as well as creatively intelligent.

Room for change
I’m not saying for a moment that agencies should stick to top-down structures, and there’s definitely sound reason for removing layers within client services (there are far too many ‘junior’ this and ‘senior’ that). Nor am I saying client services can’t be flexible. The ‘pod’ model, where different agency skillsets are organised to work together as client team, represents a welcome move away from the traditional team silos. It’s increasingly a great fit structurally for agencies, and sometimes it will lead to combining roles. But I’d be wary of sacrificing too much strategic expertise in the process.

Our industry hinges on exceptional creativity, I firmly believe that. But creativity must be aligned to business objectives, otherwise we’re not operating in the real world. I believe it’s less aligned today than it was a decade ago. I wouldn’t bet against commercial client services making a comeback in the years ahead.

Ed Hudson is managing director of Create Health

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