working towards great client service

From one-off to long-term relationships: Tips for a successful transformation

Interviewed by Nguyen Cong Thanh (s3309949)

An enduring client relationship is pretty much the happy ending that advertising agencies dream of. Sadly, one-off is often the reality and the mindset that many clients have (Gay & Pryke 2002). Therefore, the question is: How the agencies, which are perceived as merely some vendors, can successfully transform one-off into long-term relationships? This is why I came to see Nguyen Dinh Khoa, Senior Account Executive at Phibious brand marketing agency, for some practical insights.

I met him on a rainy afternoon right after he finished an advertising shoot. After having ourselves a cup of hot coffee, the talk began with Khoa, who displayed no sign of tiredness, humorously stating: ‘I think you talk to the right person. The client that I just shot with is Coke, which was a one-off but now accounts for 70% of my agency’s annual revenue’. Yes, it is Coca-Cola that Phibious successfully retains. But real surprise came in when iconic brands such as Google and Piaggio were revealed to be similar cases. So before presenting what this experienced man had to offer, I will briefly discuss the “relationship marketing ladder”, which explains the progression of agency-client relationship, and its relevance to Khoa’s advices for a systematic view of the transforming act.

Relationship marketing ladder: a model of client loyalty

Figure 1. Reproduced from: Payne (1994)

Figure 1. Reproduced from: Payne (1994)

Transforming one-time into long-term relationships means moving from “acquaintance/customer” stage in which business has occurred once to “trusted partner” stage in which the agency becomes a long-term partner due to added values and a strong relationship with the client (Payne 1994; ‘The relationship marketing ladder’ 2013). Other stages that must be reached before getting there include “expert for hire” in which the agency is re-contacted because of its knowledge and previous excellent work, “steady supplier” in which the agency consistently delivers, and “advisor” in which the agency is a sounding board for client issues.

…and its application in the real world

From the conversation with Khoa, I reckon a total of four advices:

1. ‘Let your ability speaks’

‘Before presenting any work, the account team should gather account managers and directors, who are more experienced in creativity judgment, and conduct an internal review’, said Khoa. ‘The work will be examined to see whether it adheres to the brief, client requirements, and just as importantly, satisfies the creative team’. After all, account people owe their creative colleagues an insightful judgment of their work, and clients evaluate agencies based on creative skills (Solomon 2008; Koslow, Sasser & Riordan 2006). In the end, if the work meets all these specifications, it can be sold to clients. It is this strict assessment process that helps ensure the quality of work; thereby demonstrating the agency’s ability/ knowledge to clients, increasing chances of being re-contacted and passing the crucial “expert for hire” stage.

2. ‘Serve clients well’

According to Khoa, serving clients well in this ad business means meeting deadlines. ‘Often, when the agency is approached with an assignment, it will not be long until the campaign launch. Not to mention that clients can require constant modifications throughout the creative production process’, Khoa shared. Agencies hence are evaluated much favorably if they make the deadlines (Kaynak, Kucukemiroglu & Odabasi 1994). Then what are expected of account executives, you may wonder. ‘Your job is to push the creative team to get things done on time. If you treat people well, they will help you with this’, he explained with a smile. ‘But isn’t it tough on the agency?’ I expressed. After seconds of silence, Khoa responded: ‘Yeah… But clients have their own problems too. For instance, if Coke is to run a campaign in the next 8 weeks, it must wait approximately 3 weeks for government approval. Creative production time is shortened as a result’. His earnest comment made me realize that it takes an understanding of client situation for the agency to be motivated and consistently deliver works on time; thereby remaining as “steady supplier”.

3. ‘Free yet helpful advices are a plus’

In a world where everything comes with a price, we come to appreciate free stuff. Clients are no exception. ‘If the agency offers free advices that bring actual benefits to clients, it will be valued as a nice and good advisor’, Khoa remarked. Recognizing the I-need-an-example look on my face, which was either weird or funny, he chuckled and explained: ‘A big organization like Coke also works with below-the-line and digital agencies. If it is frustrated at a design from the below-the-line agency, you can ask your creative directors and provide solutions for Coke without charging’. This is how the agency passes as clients’ sounding board and “advisor”.

Still, Khoa’s opinion differed from that of Beverland, Farrelly & Woodhatch (2004) regarding being proactive. He believed that this should be done when clients come for help otherwise it will be very awkward. This caused me to question about the role that Vietnamese culture, which avoids interference in other businesses, plays in proactive assistance dimension.

4. ‘Think partnership’

Figure 2. Reproduced from: Sitkins (2013)

Figure 2. Reproduced from: Sitkins (2013)

A great agency does not sell works (Solomon 2008). Agreeing with this, Khoa added: ‘A great agency shows that it wants to be the client’s partner and help it succeed’. And this requires the agency’s willingness to go beyond the one-off project and offer more. ‘The agency should develop an umbrella campaign plan and demonstrate how the one-off will fit within this bigger picture and how it will be more effective this way’. ‘Is that how you won Coke?’ I asked out of curiosity. ‘Honestly, Coke did not listen right away. But they considered and called us back and our relationship has continued since then. Maybe they knew who truly wanted to be in it for the long run’.

But since personal bond becomes important if the two sides are to work for an extended period (West & Paliwoda 1996), Khoa advised to entertain the client. ‘As a partner, you must attempt to understand your client’s personal life outside of work. Things like dinner outing or drinking during and after every project allow the agency to learn the client’s preferences; thereby producing works that suit client taste and building a strong agency-client relationship’.

In brief, these two aspects of ‘partnership’ are critical for the agency to reach the “trusted partner” stage.

Closing remarks

It was a wonderful experience talking to Khoa. Yet as he highlighted: ‘Different agencies and account executives have different strategies for retaining clients’, always keep your mind open and learn from as many people as you can my account-executive-to-be readers!

Proof of Life photo taken by Minh

Proof of Life photo taken by Minh

           Word count: 1100


Beverland, M, Farrelly, F & Woodhatch, Z 2004, ‘The role of value change management in relationship dissolution: hygiene and motivational factors’, Journal of Marketing Management, vol. 20, no. 9-10, pp. 927-939.

Gay, P & Pryke, M (eds) 2002, Cultural economy: cultural analysis and commercial life, Sage Publications Limited, London.

Kaynak, E, Kucukemiroglu, O & Odabasi, Y 1994, ‘Advertising agency/client relationships in advanced developing country, European Journal of Marketing, vol. 28, no. 1, pp. 35-55.

Koslow, S, Sasser, S & Riordan, E 2006, ‘Do marketers get the advertising they need or the advertising they deserve?: Agency views of how clients influence creativity’, Journal of Advertising, vol. 35, no. 3, pp. 81-101.

Nguyen Dinh Khoa 2013, interview, 27 April.

Payne, A 1994, ‘Relationship marketing – making the customer count’, Managing Service Quality, vol. 4, no. 6, pp. 29-31.

Sitkins 2013, ‘Building the bridge to success’, image, Sitkins, viewed 11 May 2013, < >.

Solomon, R 2008, The Art of Client Service, 2nd edn, Kaplan Publishing, New York.

‘The relationship marketing ladder’, course notes for COMM2384 Client Management, RMIT University, Melbourne, viewed 11 May 2013, Blackboard@RMIT.

West, D & Paliwoda, S 1996, ‘The decision-making structure of clients’, European Journal of Marketing, vol. 30, no. 8, pp. 22-39.

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4 thoughts on “From one-off to long-term relationships: Tips for a successful transformation

  1. Hi Thanh, tips based on Khoa’s experience are a great way to link with the academic concepts. However, it would have been good to spend more time analyzing and even giving your own detail opinions on the ‘advice’ that do not match with the academic literature. Overall though, I think readers will find your blog useful to have the ‘transformation’. ~Mel C

  2. I agree with the tips given by Khoa, except for the very last point under “think partnership.” Every RMIT folk understands the importance of getting to know the personal side of our client. But if my voice is to be heard, I’d encourage my RMIT friends to minimize hanging out with the client, especially when you’re a female and the client’s representative is a male.

    • Hi Giao, first of all, thank you for taking the time to read this article. Second, regarding the getting to know the client’s personal life, I can tell that there are some bitter stories behind your comment… But then, I wonder how can one maintain a good agency-client relationship in the context of Vietnam where personal bond is much emphasized?

    • Hi Giao! Nice to see you here… I think you have a point with this especially if it requires social activities ‘after office hours’. However gender concerns can also be applied both ways. I guess for all, they just need to be careful, do not drink too much, inform their office superiors that they are going out, and to train themselves to still keep an air of business throughout. ~ Mel C

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