Want to trust your ad agency? How honest conversations build better relationships

5 min read

We all know what happened When Harry Met Sally. They met cute—several times actually. They irked and annoyed one another with their discordant approaches to life. They became, in spite of their differences, best friends. Then they fell in love. Scratch that: They realized they had been in love with one other for years. (No apology for spoilers. The movie turned 30 this July.)

At Well Done, we know the agency-client relationship has some strong parallels to a great romance. Sure, it’s more likely to start with a Google search or an RFP than a cross-country road trip. But it does involve—if we’re honest—a healthy amount of initial awkwardness, followed by a phase of discovery: uncovering the passions, pet peeves, quirks, and skeletons in the closet that make us who we really are.

While that process can sometimes feel uncomfortable, it’s actually incredibly valuable. The trust that’s built between agency and client through that process can lead to truly great things.

Getting to Know You

When Well Done starts working with a new client, our favorite place to begin is with positioning and messaging. To refine who the client is, and where they stand in the world, we conduct research, do extensive interviews, and perform creative and digital analysis; we’re frequently the quirky but disarming nerd in this relationship.

Meanwhile, our clients are wondering, “How many interviews are they going to schedule? What are they going to find out when they talk to our customers? Do we really need all this for a new logo?” (Not necessarily. Only if you want a really good one.)

If stars align, this goes pretty smoothly. More than occasionally, we do have to tell a client something they may not want or expect to hear. This is a big inflection point for trust. It’s not always “sunshine and rainbows,” as our director of account service, Melissa Sunsdahl points out. “Sometimes we have to have really difficult conversations to let them know that things are not as great as they thought that they were. That inherently builds trust because we’re honest with them and they’re vulnerable with us. It starts the relationship off with really solid ground, and we can build from there.”

Even if there are no difficult conversations, it’s often best to follow the initial brand identity work with a smaller, simpler project or two. This helps us understand whether we know our new client as well as we think we do—and helps them become more comfortable with our process.

How Trust Enables Boldness

As an example: In 2013, we began working with MJ Insurance, one of the nation’s largest privately-held insurance companies. We began with a thorough positioning and messaging update. We spoke with company executives and associates, clients and ex-clients, and other industry professionals. We found out all we could about MJ’s business, their services, and their culture, looking especially at how they are uniquely valued by their customers, employees, and their community.

MJ saw the value in the insights we delivered, and we went on to do some collateral work, a website, some print ads, and a set of videos that illustrated their unique employee culture. This was great work—based authentically in who MJ was. But in terms of look and feel, they still reflected the company’s previously established brand (last refreshed, pretty modestly, in 2005).

But by 2018, with a move to a new corporate headquarters in the works, MJ was ready to completely overhaul their brand. Though the client admitted the scope of the change was a little scary, the trust we built through the first few years of our relationship helped us do some bold and exciting work together. (It’s our experience that brave marketing is often the most effective marketing.)

“They showed how much they trusted us,” Melissa says. “We were able to really push the envelope, and we came up with a really bold logo mark that’s fresh and modern and young—and that incorporates all the aspects of their brand and who they really are. With that new brand, we’ve made fun and exciting pieces that you would never expect from an insurance company—and that went on to inform their website, ads, business cards, signage for their building, even furniture and décor for their office. We never could have done that without such complete trust.”

Signs of an Agency You Can Trust

If you’re thinking of hiring a new agency, how do you find one you can trust? According to Melissa, there are some quick ways to tell the good eggs from the creeps.

  • Good agencies are led by well-informed people who offer more questions than answers. Don’t be overly swayed by flashy promises or fashionable buzzwords.
  • They give solid estimates that clearly lay out the scope of the project. Be wary of agencies that change the plan or the estimate once they’ve won the work.
  • They communicate well, speak clearly about the process, and are upfront about what’s expected of both parties. Look out for flatterers and schmoozers.
  • They provide solutions to your problems and help you strategize ways to make the most impact with your budget, whether or not they’ll be doing the work. Be wary of an agency where the solution always seems to involve the one or two things that just happen to be their specialty.

“First and foremost, we are upholding our client’s brands and working with them to grow their business,” Melissa says. “We come to them with solid marketing recommendations, and not always things that we need to do for them. Sometimes they’re things that they can do for themselves. The honesty our team brings to our clients is all about moving them forward. Any way that happens, we consider it a success. Those successes build trust and enable great things.”

Transparency and clear communication are key. That’s why we start any new client relationship with a conversation—face-to-face if possible. Want some face time with us? Let’s get lunch. We’ll have what you’re having.