How to Build (and Maintain) a Killer Client Roster

Agencies typically suffer from client turnover rates that severely detract from profitability. Experts say that today the average client tenure is less than three years or that half of all agency-client relationships will last less than two years. I have to brag that our agency typically keeps clients for much longer–a source of immense pride for us. Before I get too puffed up, I should admit that not all of our client relationships are shining models of perfection. But we have learned key lessons over the years, been inspired by others, and gleaned five ways to build – and keep – a top-notch client roster.

Shared Vision of Success

At the onset of the agency-client relationship, it often seems like the synergies, good will and future possibilities are limitless. But a clear, shared vision of success can be the difference between a short-lived, unsatisfying relationship and a flourishing, long-term one. This vision can be qualified (improve awareness, preference) and quantified (increase sales by X, add X new customers). We include these key performance indicators (KPIs) in the partnership agreement. Ask the client how they will decide whether to retain the agency next year, what criteria will you be judged on. There’s your KPI.

Make Them Successful

In most cases this means make them money. But it could also mean bringing an issue to the forefront of public discourse, changing the company image or attracting key partners. If you have a shared vision of success, then this should come naturally. Make sure you point out the small wins on the road to huge victories. It will help them enjoy success on a day-to-day basis and highlight the agency’s contributions.

Stay Tuned

Stay tuned in to your clients, their industry and their challenges. What’s going on in their world? What keeps them awake at night? Know your direct clients’ current and past roles; their strengths and weaknesses. If you haven’t yet figured out what style of communication works best with your client, have them take this test. Read articles, blogs and trade publications to know the trends and the competition, and so that you can bring them ideas. Stay abreast of the leadership team and their priorities.

Over Communicate

Tell the client what you’re planning to do, tell them you’re doing it, and tell them when you’re done. Be out in front of project status and make sure your client knows the important parameters like who, what, where, when and how much. Err on the side of too much communication. We use the trusted weekly status document and call (if needed) to make sure everyone is aware of milestones, progress and to-dos.

Client Best Interests First

Always put your client’s best interests first. In most cases they coincide with yours. Even when they don’t, your fundamental duty is to represent the client organization. In one worst-case scenario, our client wanted to rupture the agreement because of funding issues. We allowed them to do this, although it put a strain on agency income projections. In the end, the client came back, referred us to many other prospects and remained a loyal, valuable, longtime partner of the agency.


Self-Reporting Limitations and How to Mitigate

…or, “I often pick my nose in public!”

Most market research relies on subjects to tell the truth and respond to questions as honestly as possible. We set the stage by making the survey voluntary, encouraging different opinions in a focus group or letting participants know that there are no wrong answers.

But some questions are harder than others to answer honestly. When a respondent knows that his answer is “wrong” (morally, legally, ethically or socially), he may tend to offer the “right” answer instead. After all, there are no repercussions to him for answering in a normative way. Yet, as great interrogators might say, “We have ways of making you talk!”Right-vs.-Wrong

By its very nature, market research centers on self-reporting. There is evidence that the more personal the format, i.e. an in-person interview, the more likely subjects are to self-report falsely. We have witnessed increased truthfulness in online surveys, which are far less personal.

During the research phase of a past campaign, we asked subjects, over the phone, how often they brush their teeth. Nearly everyone knows that ‘twice a day’ is the right answer, and as a result, an overwhelming majority offered this answer. Interestingly, the survey population has a very high incidence of cavities. Brushing-TeethIf they truly brushed twice a day, they likely wouldn’t experience such a great degree of tooth decay. When we conducted an online survey of the same audience, we noticed significantly fewer ‘twice a day’ answers. The impersonal nature of an online survey allowed respondents to answer more truthfully than they did on the phone.

In another case, we probed into rampant abuse of handicapped parking spots. Here again, subjects knew full well that they were doing the wrong thing. In focus groups, these participants denied ever having parked illegally in a disabled parking spot.images

To get people to open up, we decided to try something new: the moderator admitted to having done it on occasion herself. Once this person in a position of authority confessed to her own counter-normative behavior, the subjects readily recounted their own incidents and motivations.

The most credible market research findings will always be based upon observational studies, especially where stigmatized or socially unacceptable behavior is concerned. But when more in-depth insights are required, consider research tactics that allow subjects to report freely, honestly and guiltlessly.

How to Gain a Competitive Advantage

Companies stand to gain important competitive insights simply by taking the time to explore the full panoply of tools available online. The best part? Most of these tools are free and easy to use.

Let’s say you make unique women’s tennis apparel (because I see this as a real need) and you want to improve sales.

Here are a few of my favorite ways to stay a cut above the competition:

Track website traffic

First and foremost, websites should be equipped with Google Analytics to track traffic. Websites like Compete or Alexa also offer insights into the traffic of other websites, providing a basis for comparison to competitors. Look a little deeper to see which pages are getting the most traffic or time on your site as well as your competitors’.

Check social media

While many sophisticated social media audit tools are available, you can access critical topline information – for free – just by looking. Nearly every social media channel (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc.) illustrates how many followers a given page or user has. Most will also offer some sort of engagement data such as likes or re-tweets.

Compare content, creative and messaging

Explore competitor messaging and brand positioning by simply visiting their websites directly. For a broader reach, dig into Ad Forum or Moat, both of which curate considerable amounts of advertising and creative work. How can your message or visuals distinguish you from the herd?

Look through an SEO lens

Conduct regular Google searches on industry keywords, to gauge which competitors are coming up on the first page. What key words, page headers and tags are they using? How are you stacking up? A plethora of SEO analysis tools exist –many of which are free for the basic, first-level review.

The internet has given us a window­–if not full transparency–into our competitors. Be sure to leverage this to serve up an ace every time.

Judging the Work

Mutual trust is the cornerstone of a successful agency-client relationship, and key to creating great work. Clients bring unparalleled industry knowledge, while agencies excel at bringing campaigns to life. Trusting each other’s expertise, listening, and asking productive questions can mean the difference between a good campaign and a great one.

When it comes time to assess creative, a few simple tips help demystify the process and ultimately improve agency-client communication.

Back to the Brief: Pay attention to the creative brief – even before brainstorming and concept development begins – as it guides the work every step of the way. Both the agency and client should check work against the brief and determine whether it meets the goals and communication objectives set forth. When unveiling the work, good presenters set the stage by restating the assignment and demonstrating how the work aligns perfectly with the brief.

Target Practice: Most of us cannot escape our own biases. If you do not represent the target, then put yourself in the shoes of a typical audience member.

What is the persona of my target?
How would s/he respond to this?
What feedback can we get from actual target audience members?

Understanding the context, creative cues and cultural triggers of the target will help determine the fit, or lack thereof.

So What: Remember – you want more than anything to be noticeable and memorable. Most viewers will spend far less time with the work than you.

What is your initial, gut reaction to the work? Surprised, amused, or otherwise emotionally moved? Creating an emotional connection means the work has done its job.

You can always ask your agency, with impunity, questions such as:

Which one do you recommend and why?
How this will be produced?
How different will this work look in its final form?

Follow these tips to foster an environment where constructive conversations between agency and client occur at every important juncture and together, successful partnerships, and campaigns, are born.

Driving Behavior Change

How can we know that lasting change has been achieved by a campaign? Time, continual market research and again, time.

By their very nature, behavior change campaigns typically span a long period of time because changing a person’s habits in an enduring way requires years not weeks.

Market research not only provides a benchmark when creating behavior change campaigns, it also serves as an effective tool to measure campaign effectiveness along the way.

If the behavior change continuum offers a road map of the various stages leading to the ultimate destination, then research represents the gas station that fuels campaign development.

In most cases, a baseline survey gives us the starting points for each of the phases (awareness, interest, knowledge, trial, adoption) as well as the benchmark for actual behavior at a point in time. Other research activities can shed light on knowledge gaps, key messages and emotional connections. For example, in developing messaging for our Delta Dental campaign, we knew that many parents simply didn’t think baby teeth mattered. In focus groups, we uncovered the key to changing this belief: cavities spread from baby teeth to adult teeth. Once participants were exposed to this fact, their attitudes towards baby teeth shifted immediately, and we found the engine for our messaging.

In our research for the Colorado Advisory Council for Persons with Disabilities, we set out to explain the rampant abuse of disabled parking spots. Overwhelmingly, survey respondents claimed, “I never do it.” When the facilitator admitted to doing the deed, the respondents felt more at ease. Suddenly the floodgates opened with confessions and excuses. These conversations paved the way to effective messaging and a campaign tone that resonated with real people in their daily routines.

By checking in with your audience periodically, listening attentively and probing for deeper insights, you can fine-tune your campaign as you go, stepping more confidently on the accelerator towards the end goal at every turn.

Three Ways to Test a Campaign

If you are like most marketers, you lose sleep thinking about the various ways your campaign could run amok, blow up or otherwise fail. Let’s face it, the list of reasons things could go wrong is nightmarishly long: wrong files delivered to media outlets, talent not showing up on time, legal team nixing the product name at the eleventh hour or the client accidentally ingesting drugs (yes, that really happened). There seems to be no shortage of new, innovative ways for the proverbial wheels to come off of your marketing machine.


Rest assured. You can control, to a great degree, the extent to which your campaign will resonate with your target using any of these three basic testing methods.

Focus Groups
Hold small, in-person focus groups–dyads or triads are best–with members of your target to hear feedback or to conduct A/B testing of potential campaign directions. Conduct at least three focus groups so that you can discard one; sometimes participants are just not very participatory. Ask questions such as: What is your first reaction to this? How likely are you to take the suggested action? How likely are you to talk about this campaign with a friend?

Online Testing
Conduct an online survey of 10 questions among the target audience. If you do not have emails for this audience (via client contacts, partners, friends or family), respondent panels can always be purchased online. Don’t be afraid to post images or links as part of the survey, but be sure to test it thoroughly. Take the survey in test mode several times and ask others to take it as well. Input different answers to make sure that all questions, branch logic and programming are working correctly. Don’t forget to delete your test “completes” before launching.

Non-Traditional Testing
Promotional events and tradeshows offer the perfect opportunity to test your campaign. Use your party, website launch or booth as the venue to solicit campaign feedback. In some cases, you may be able to test different messages or sales pitches. You’ll get more consistent, reliable results if you use documented, consistent questions or discussion points for each respondent.

Demographics and Dive Bars

When the Colorado Department of Transportation saw that motorcycle fatalities were on the rise, they knew something had to be done. Accident data pointed to the fact that many fatalities might have been avoided if the riders had been wearing helmets. And yet we are in a state where helmets are not required by law! Our job was to create a campaign that would encourage motorcycle riders to wear safety gear, including helmets.

First stop, our target audience. Motorcycle riders are already a small group, but we needed to know more in order to pinpoint our message. Which riders are most at risk? Who needs to hear our message most? The fatality data revealed an interesting tidbit: older, male, weekend riders were actually much more at risk than other groups.

Using this data, we dug up more demographic and psychographic information on our target. How? By stopping in to the local biker bar, of course. We bellied up to discover that these weekend warriors are affluent, hate being told what to do, and feel strongly that other drivers on the road are the biggest danger they face. According to our target, “cagers” (another name for four-wheeled car drivers) don’t check their mirrors, do a thousand other things behind the wheel, and generally do not pay much attention to the road. Notably, those who do wear safety gear or helmets claimed that the main reason was to protect themselves from these unpredictable, irresponsible drivers.

In fact, drivers were not found to be at fault in the majority of motorcycle fatalities from that period. We could try to convince our target they were wrong, but they probably wouldn’t listen. In behavior change communications, we know the importance of meeting people where they are. We needed to use this insight to connect with these bikers and drive action.

Next stop, campaign concept. Because our target doesn’t want to be scolded (who does?), we determined a peer spokesperson would be most effective. Our new friends from the watering hole proved to be excellent and credible talent for the photo shoot. By showcasing real, relatable riders, we could use social norming to promote more protective gear. Lastly, to make our message resonate, we would evoke the same rationale that other riders use.

Last stop, campaign launch. People were impressed with our striking, real-life photography, but not all drivers were thrilled with their portrayal and shared their grievances online. We seized this controversy as the perfect opportunity to chime in and share more important safety information with a broader public, extending the life of the campaign far beyond what paid media alone could offer.

The campaign won several awards and accolades, but most importantly, motorcycle fatalities have decreased by 25%. Who said advertising isn’t saving lives?

Getting from What to Why

Increasingly, advertisers are realizing the need to shift gears to attract and cultivate relationships with a new breed of consumer: the digital native. One client recently lamented, “We have always been a manufacturing company who made a great product. It used to be that we advertised the product to the right people and that was enough.” Not so anymore.

Our world is crowded and complex, with more people, brands and communication channels than ever before. Today’s consumers, and especially younger generations (think millennials), are looking to connect on their own terms. They’ve basically rejected the traditional product pitch and posed a new challenge instead: “Tell me who you are, what you stand for and why I should care,” they say. “Then, I’ll decide whether or not I choose you.”

The Internet has created the perfect platform to house, collect and prune these choices, hence the notion of buzzed-about “curated experiences.” Marketers especially must remember that the vast majority of consumers will soon be digital natives who were born and raised online. Given the enormous array of choices, this generation has decided to get very personal. “If the product, company or brand doesn’t fit my image of myself, if we are not likeminded, then I’m out.”

Here are a few brands creating killer emotional connections:


This LOL funny spot shows personality, quirkiness, something unglamorous, with a real people feel. Oh and, it manages to show the “what” along the way.


TOMS shoes are not only stylish and comfortable, the company also prides itself on its commitment to giving back. TOMS encourages a strong emotional connection with its socially conscious (and strategically brilliant) One for One campaign.

Delta Dental of Colorado Foundation

The why here is simply put: because cavities can spread from baby to adult teeth. The why – of supreme importance in behavior change campaigns – becomes a more consultative way to remind parents of the what – avoiding sugary drinks like juice.

In a world of what, consumers may buy once and immediately lose their bond with the brand. With an emotional connection, advertisers gain customers for life, raving fans who will promote them, connect on social media and beat down the door for the next product.

Hello World!

Hi there and welcome to View from the Robin’s Nest!

My passion for market research–and especially the application of it–comes from a quarter century in marketing, advertising and other communications disciplines. Beginning in medical market research, my work experience has spanned many industries from enterprise software to financial services, outdoor/sports, entertainment and beyond. It’s all brought me to this point in my career: being an agency principal and proud market research geek. These days, the team at the agency and I work on everything from children’s oral health to cycling accessories to the safe public use of legal marijuana.

In this blog, I explore and share the myriad ways market research affects the strategies companies and brands put into place.

So why should you care? Companies often overlook this step of building their brand or campaign. It can be hard for CMOs to sell and CEOs often think they already know their audience. This blog is here to show you that without market research, you don’t.

It’s fascinating to see how often market research can be an extremely important driver of change or at least provide the sign posts that point to new directions.

Here’s to looking at market research from a bird’s eye view.