Clients have always asked their agencies for favours: a small change to the artwork at the last minute; some help with a slide deck for a big presentation; a minor project that needs a speedy turnaround. Nothing special there, you might think. But at what point do those few favours start to distract the agency from what you really need them to do?

Likewise agencies have always done favours for their clients, assuming they’re storing up goodwill for some point in the future when they need a little more time or flexibility in return. But is that how things really work? What if all they achieve by doing a favour is set the expectation that they’ll do it again the next time? And the next? And at that point it’s not a favour, it’s part of the job.

These were the questions that went through my mind when I read the results of our recent research into client/agency relationships. This found that goodwill is seen as being separate from the trust that the two sides have in each other.

  • Agencies show goodwill by going “above and beyond” for the client
  • Clients show goodwill by stretching deadlines and overlooking mistakes
  • Both sides say they see it as ‘money in the bank’; something which, if built up now, will bring benefits later.

I don’t see it like that.

Yes, there will always be favours traded between client and agencies. It’s only human to ask for help and to offer it; and favours are part of what oils the wheels of the client/agency relationship as we all strive to deliver faster, quicker and better results. But my view is that those favours, like everything else in the relationship, need to be discussed and managed properly when considered over time.

Agencies need to manage them to make sure they’re delivering value and maintaining their margin; clients because they need to know what their fees are really buying is the best value and return. The risk on both sides is that ‘favour culture’ masks what’s actually going on.

Separating scope-flex from scope-creep

In the moment, it’s hard to say no when someone asks for help. Nobody at an agency, particularly at a junior level, wants to refuse a client’s request, partly because they don’t want to jeopardise the relationship, and partly because they see the chance to earn some goodwill.

I think the important distinction to make is between scope-flex and scope-creep.

Everyone’s come across scope-creep; it’s the slow, informal expansion of the workload, and one of the common ways this happens is by a one-off favour request becoming a regular expectation. Scope-flex is the natural human tendency to ask for, and offer, help. The trick is to avoid flex turning into creep.

Transparency in all things

It’s important that any discussions of favours should happen when the heat is off. All staff need to be encouraged to tell their managers when they’ve done favours, rather than just working late to catch up or moving on. Equally, they need to admit when they’ve asked for them.

This transparency means that both client and agency know what’s really happening. Repeated requests for the same favour can distract the agency from work needed to hit the client’s objectives, but they could also be hiding a significant flaw in internal processes that needs to be addressed. By putting recurring favour requests on the agenda for the regular review meetings between client and agency, problems can be uncovered and addressed, and workloads managed, in a calm and measured way.

At this point, client readers might be worrying that this will end up costing them money.

There are two answers to this.

First, you were always going to end up paying anyway the next time you re-negotiated the scope of work. Scope creep soon materialises into over burn conversations and increased fee requests.

Secondly, and if a request for increased fee materialises then at least an active choice can be made to say ‘this is important, this is needed, this is valued – now what’s the smartest way of delivering?’  But if, on review, you decide these “favours” don’t add value then you have a choice and can make out of scope, establish a protocol for handling and communicate to all teams, client and agency, accordingly.

So, while it might seem contrary to the spirit of doing someone a favour, thinking about it in terms of scope-flex and scope-creep means there’s still room to accommodate the sudden and unexpected need for one-off help, without either party relying on the somewhat nebulous accountancy of goodwill, or risking those favours masking underlying waste within the relationship.