I have just completed another relationship evaluation and improvement programme on behalf of a major UK client, involving interviews with the key relationship owners and with their counterparts in some of the marketing services agencies with which they work.

As ever, these privileged conversations revealed past, present and future-facing intelligence which entirely validated the investment in independently facilitated, face-to-face meetings.

In gathering my thoughts as I prepared my recommendations, I was again struck by how important agency proactivity is to clients and by how often agencies can miss this open door to meaningful differentiation or can simply, in the terms I use, confuse proactivity with activity.

We all seem to want more for less these days, whatever the commodity, and, therefore, it comes as little surprise that this has become a client mantra in their relationships with service providers. Understandably, too, in highly competitive environments, marketers are hungry for fresh knowledge and insight, especially from where they rarely look, outside their sectors and geographies.

Taking this example, agencies, especially larger ones, are superbly placed to leverage their wider learning to enhance the input they can offer to one client organisation with reference to what they are discovering across their diverse client base. Breaches of confidentiality must be avoided but it is relatively straightforward to anonymise source material or to share general principles rather than precise detail.

So why can agency proactivity be so elusive in the form that clients most desire and appreciate it?

There are some practical reasons. Firstly, we need to factor in the manifest resource pressures which bedevil agencies (and clients) these days. In truth, it can be a challenge to get beyond the ‘must do’ and into the ‘should do’ and ‘could do’ of client service.

Secondly, knowledge management within agencies can leave a great deal to be desired. It is impossible to share relevant experience and expertise with clients if this information is not collected, consolidated and distributed in the first place.

Beyond systemic impediments, there is also the tendency to regard proactivity as a mandate simply for selling more agency services rather than as a mechanism for getting further under the skin of a client organisation. In the latter scenario, armed with greater understanding, the agency can create a propensity to buy more of its wares among clients who believe that the agency’s ambition is primarily to help them achieve their goals.

If this sounds like splitting hairs, very few people (clients included) like being sold to and yet we all love to buy when we are confronted by an offer which meets our needs, satisfies our wants.

From my work, what advice can I offer to ensure that proactivity is indeed the right kind? Here are my top five pointers:

  • Really know your client’s business, in its depth and breadth, not just how it impacts the agency’s business. For example, how is it structured, how does it make money, what are the short and long-term challenges, where is the business heading, what’s in the Annual Report and the marketing plan?
  • Understand whether, how and where the agency adds value. It sounds obvious but often agencies aren’t clear on this. This knowledge shines a light on where proactivity will be most welcome, based on a track record, and where it is likely to have the greatest effect
  • Ensure that your key client relationships are continuous. Don’t be present only when the account is busy. Don’t let the rhythm of the work dictate the rhythm of the relationship. As a client once said to me, “good conversations always lead to more work” and rich, informed dialogue is only possible if the agency is up to speed, in the loop, current
  • I would say this, of course, but regular, independent, in depth appraisals of the key client/agency relationships are excellent vehicles for exploring, refreshing and evolving the collaboration. With the resulting, renewed vigour comes an appetite for generating, receiving and implementing proactivity
  • Schedule, design and deliver magnetic planning sessions. Pretty much everyone I interview wishes there were more of these meetings in the calendar, where the day-to-day routine is put to one side, where broader topics are discussed, where new faces can be introduced, where client and agency script the future together and where new ideas can flow

Proactivity is a key agency deliverable for clients. Frankly, it is now an expectation. Fortunately, even in these testing times, this is well within the grasp of the best agencies and, done well, it reaps rewards. Inspired proactivity, permitted by understanding client needs and by true relationship behaviour, leads to trusted advisor status and encourages client commitment (beyond the dangerously overused phrase ‘client satisfaction’).

Beware, however, while proactivity is active, it’s all about the pro (professional, profitable, ideally provocative and certainly proportionate) not the activity.