In professional sports, you’ll sometimes see a star athlete who was setting all kinds of records get traded or sign with another team — and then flop.
Same athlete. Same sport. Different team, culture and fans.
And very different results. Star on one team, flop on another — even if the athlete is healthy.
There are too many examples to cite but it happens every season, in every sport. And this is after scouting reports, tryouts, conversations with the athlete and their agent. And still, fairly often, there’s a problem, and the player is traded away or waived.
Chemistry is an important part of why a player will succeed on one team, fail on another.
Chemistry is also important in client and agency relationships, a lesson I learned early on in the agency business.
- There must be chemistry on the agency team and with the client across the table. At Ketchum, when I was starting out, I asked then-CEO Dave Drobis what was a secret to winning new business. It comes down to chemistry, he told me: Chemistry on the agency side and chemistry across the table. The agency team needs to show that they can work together and they need to show they can work well with the client. Chemistry may even be more important than great ideas, he said, because you can have terrific ideas but be so unpleasant to work with that the client won’t hire you.
- Chemistry must be part of the agency culture. These days agencies often have some employees working remotely and others have people in the office but they’re sitting at their desks with headphones on, barely interacting with their on-site colleagues. It’s more important than ever that team members feel like they’re part of something. So it’s more important than ever that agencies figure out their culture, how to make working there and for various clients is rewarding, challenging and fun. They need to feel supported and that they have a voice and are valued. (That’s true, too, for professional athletes, too.)
- Chemistry isn’t always about liking someone. In my second PR job, I was hired with one real goal: the EVP at the agency hated getting calls at 4:30 every Friday from a particularly unhappy client. My job: stop the client from calling to complain on Friday afternoons. I came in, figured out how to work with the day-to-day client, and we got great results: a mention on “The Tonight Show,” articles in Forbes, Fortune, Businessweek, CNN, Time, Newsweek and other top national media. The client was tough and intimidating, and may not have ever truly warmed to me, but we found a way to work together. After a couple of years, she left the company, and was replaced by a much nicer, easier-going person. The problem: he wasn’t a good fit in the client organization, and we couldn’t get the info we needed to pitch stories. Without compelling stories the original client was about to identify through her network inside the company, there was a big drop in our results. The day-to-day client contact was the only variable that changed but it was a critical factor in our success. So what we mean by chemistry is more than likability. It can be something more elusive.
- Clients who pick lowest price over chemistry may do themselves a disservice. We certainly understand cashflow pressures, and we hate spending client money when we don’t have to. But we learned an important from one of our clients, a biotech manufacturer who has a rule to not take on clients whose main criteria is achieving the lowest cost possible. The reason: Saving money can get in the way of accomplishing the program’s goal. (Our biotech client can point to situation after situation in which penny-wise-but-pound-foolish clients, asked to cut the wrong corners, which resulted in delays and additional costs.) If everyone’s eyes are on the meter, you’re always looking for short cuts.
- Good chemistry helps when looking at the big picture. Again, when clients are focused on saving money, they keep different marketing functions operating separately. They think bringing in different vendors for regular meetings just costs money without paying off dividends. We had a client who kept the PR function separate from social media function. When it came time to make the most important product announcement for the next 24 months, we checked out the client’s social media feeds only to see there was no mention of the major product upgrade. Turns out the social media team hadn’t been briefed and hadn’t prepared content about the new version of the company’s flagship product. Reporters checking out the client’s Twitter feed asked us why what we had called the company’s most significant announcement wasn’t even reaching their Twitter feed. Contrast that with another client who initially resisted having us talk with its webmaster but soon saw how letting us talk really benefited the client by allowing us to work together.
We recently saw something that said there are three key variables: Good, Fast and Cheap but generally you can get achieve only two of those. You can have something good and fast but that’s rarely cheap. You can have something cheap and fast but that’s rarely good. Or cheap and good but rarely fast.
Clients who prize cheap usually also want things done fast, and the result is the agency is unhappy — because we always want to deliver something not just good but excellent — and ultimately, so is the client.
Please note: we truly understand the financial pressures of clients. We understand the need to keep budgets under control. Back in the dot-com era, working at a big PR agency, we had a couple of clients that spent crazy amounts of money, especially considering that one had no real product, no customers and no revenue. They had a PR budget of $30,000 a month, hoping that would generate eyeballs (the term of the day) but they ran out of money by the third month, owing the agency $90,000 never collected.
That was a prime lesson for taking a different approach at Birnbach Communications to our clients — they all had to real products, real customers and real revenue or funding. There’s a balance between spending not enough money and spending too much. We’re not trying to blame clients who need to be conservative with their budgets; we just have learned to walk away when clients ask us to reduce the hours and fees in our proposal, based on our experience of how much time a project will take — because they often don’t reduce their expectations. That affects and degrades the chemistry and trust.
So good chemistry is elusive. In some cases, chemistry is really a matter of trust across the table. There are steps we take to develop the chemistry and to build the trust and invest in the client relationship. When you have it, the agency team and client team can achieve success together.
Which is what we all want.