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In 1943, American psychologist Abraham Maslow published Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Working from the bottom up, they were outlined as building blocks — physiological, safety, love and belongingness, esteem, and self-actualization. His theory rests on the fact that the most basic human needs must be met before people are motivated to grow at a higher level and achieve more.

One could argue that these needs should be met and satisfied by one’s employer, but in the dynamic of agency life, the client-agency relationship holds just as much significance.

If we were to draw up a hierarchy of needs for agency talent that mirrored those of Maslow, they might look something like this (working from the bottom up): compensation, commitment, trust and friendship, appreciation, inspired partner.

A recent WARC article on the evolution of the client-agency relationship points to the value of looking at a partnership in this way. Brent Smart, CMO at IAG, said:

“If you’re a client who can inspire agency talent to want to work for your brand, you can get this incredible discretionary effort from the creative people. For me, that’s not about the vanity of being the favorite client of the agency; it’s a commercial decision.”

For me, a handful of amazing partnerships over the years come to mind. My all-time favorite was a few years into my agency career when I was partnered with a client who was running a customer account for a beloved American brand. Starting from the ground up, we were paid fairly (compensated) and retained (commitment), but our partnership went beyond those fundamentals.

This client, along with her entire team, always made me feel like I was working right alongside them. When there was a problem, they talked about how “we” were going to solve it together as a team (trust). We spent many late nights ordering in pizza and talking about our families and our backgrounds as we collaborated on PowerPoint decks and speaking notes (friendship). At the end of that experience, we went out to a celebratory dinner, during which my main client stood up and thanked me for all I had done and gave me a present on behalf of the team (appreciation).

This partnership was invaluable to me as a person, but it also proved out its value to the bottom line, crowned by being selected by our customer as vendor of the year and knocking our sales goals out of the park.

The building blocks of a great client-agency partnership

  • Start with the foundation.

    Compensation and commitment (in the form of a short-term project agreement or long-term retainer) are the beginning, but don’t stop there.

  • Build trust. 
    Approach problem-solving as “we” rather than “me.” How are we going to solve this problem together vs. how are you going to solve this problem for me?
  • Seek out personal connections. 
    Ask about a person’s day, their family, or what they love to do.
  • Show appreciation. 
    This can be as simple as a thank you and as grand as a public speech.
  • Reap the rewards. 
    The result will be a more fruitful partnership — both personally and professionally.