It’s proving to be a dynamic year for out-of-home relationships. All over the world, as horror stories abound, we are being forced to re-assess who we can trust, beyond our immediate circle, to lead, guide and support us.

Actually, in the UK, the divisions sparked by the EU Referendum campaigns have damaged some close, personal relationships too but hopefully we can now move on in a spirit of May-do (how’s that for confidence?)!

In the commercial arena, my liaison-sensitive eye was caught by a headline in the June 9 issue of Marketing Week, namely ‘Brands’ relationships with digital agencies hit the rocks’. The accompanying piece announced the publication of a report conducted by Forrester Research for the digital society SoDA. Given the influence of digital agencies these days, this is concerning.

In short, the report concludes: ‘Overall, client expectations are increasing across the board and agencies haven’t caught up yet.’ Digging more deeply, the picture painted by the research contains three key themes: discrepancies between what clients want and what agencies think they want; more fragile loyalty to agencies among clients seeking rapid, measurable results and/or limitless access to innovation in an over-supplied market; clients recognising and reacting to (via termination in some cases) understaffing or inexperience within the agency team.

The agency dilemma here is palpable. The management team faces a raised bar, a client focus on short-termism, a distractingly competitive landscape and pressure on profitability which challenges training budgets and resource allocation. No wonder, back to the SoDA report, ‘Agency respondents have a decidedly less optimistic outlook on their relationships with clients than in 2015…’

Sensibly, in my view, the review urges that clients and their digital agencies need to refresh some of the basics of successful collaboration and ‘invest as much in the relationship as they do in the latest technology or consumer trend’. But how will this be accomplished when the I-word (Investment) can sound like yet another agent of stretch?

In my experience, investing in commercial relationships, especially for newer, leaner operations (as digital agencies often are), is more about working smarter than working harder. Also, by the way, while I do observe that digital agencies are in general less experienced in relationship management than some of their more established agency kinsfolk, the best of them are as good as any, offering the magical combination of leading edge communications expertise that every client needs and timeless human behaviours that every client wants.

The key learning for me, even in our hopelessly crowded schedules, is to make time at the right time to save time. In practice the agency takes responsibility, beyond the realm of project delivery, to schedule well planned, appropriately timed and attended sessions to ensure that there is a nourishing, frequent dialogue and, importantly, that the rhythm of the work does not dictate the rhythm of the relationship. I call this the pilot-light principle. And here are three specific tips.

Firstly, it is essential regularly to check in with what are clients’ needs, priorities and expectations. They change ever more quickly and are informed by who else they are working with/talking to. For example, a client’s competitive context is fluid and, if this goes unrecognised, they can know more about agencies seeking their business than about the incumbents. Also, agencies can easily become starved of the real-time intelligence required to staff an account appropriately.

Secondly, clients like to feel that they are benefitting from everything that an agency knows rather than simply from the combined knowledge of their designated team. This requires internal processes to consolidate wider learning but when leveraged successfully, including via the introduction of new faces, the impact can be stunning in convincing clients of an agency’s bandwidth, pro-activity and commitment to innovation.

Thirdly, it is vital to know clients as professionals and as people. An important element of this is to practise bespoke communication. Not all marketers are the same. Which guru do they follow? What do they read? Equally, as individuals, they have a preferred style, mode and format. I endlessly hear about the frustration caused by the overuse of blunt ‘digital tools’ in communicating with clients. It’s the personal touch that works, every time.

If all of this seems to involve people sitting in the same room talking, listening, debating, laughing, arguing, sharing, I make no apologies for that. This leads to rapport, trust, mutual understanding and a sense of shared purpose which can buy time and patience when, in a digital arms race, the inevitable technical issues and competitive threats arise. It can also be an effective antidote to adultery and divorce.

In the July 16 edition of The Guardian Ben Tarnoff reminds us that the most digital of all digital inventions (approaching its 40th birthday) was validated by a small team of scientists who set up a computer terminal on a picnic table in the garden of a Californian pub (Rossotti’s). ‘Over plastic cups of beer, they proved that a strange idea called the internet could work.’

We will never digitalise relationships (or beer). Enjoy the sunshine!