Faaez Samadi
Nov 15, 2017

Clients want candour, not panderers

Having honest and often difficult conversations with clients is essential to maintain relationships and do meaningful work, says Michelle Tham at Hill+Knowlton Strategies.

Michelle Tham
Michelle Tham

When it comes to managing client expectations, there is only one way to do it, says Michelle Tham, managing director for Singapore and Malaysia at Hill+Knowlton Strategies: with sometimes brutal honesty.

Sure it may be awkward for a short period, but as much as agencies must seek to respond to client demands, they must also step in and tell them when they are wrong. This is particularly true when proposing new, innovative communications strategies, which most clients might strike down as too risky.

“My job is to say to the client, yes there are risks, but let’s have a conversation about how we approach them,” she tells Campaign Asia-Pacific.

“It’s about being very honest, not just trying to sweep away their concerns, but explaining what you can mitigate, and where you’ll need to have some faith and we all need to hold hands.”

How many times have you heard that, ‘this is best-in-class digital, best-in-class communications’. Best in whose class? Is there a class somewhere that I missed?

It’s a refreshing position to hear in an agency world that can all too often feel like a sea of yes men and women, who, when scrapping fiercely with rivals at pitches, promise the earth and then underdeliver.

Tham says that while agencies take a lot of flak for this, the client can also be at fault for having unrealistic expectations, or worse, being far too conservative in a digital media world full of exciting new opportunities.

“Fine, we can say [to the client] ‘let’s not go that far’,” she hypothesises. “But if we’re going to water it down, then to what extent, and then when do I step in to say if we go this far back, there’s no point in doing this. So it’s not all or nothing, it’s most or nothing. Clients are wise enough to see this.”

This attitude is central to Tham’s leadership of Hill+Knowlton’s Singapore and Malaysia offices, the latter of which she took over in January. The move has created what she calls an “open corridor” between the two practices, which means talent from both countries is combined to serve clients according to their needs.

In that time, the agency’s digital team has doubled across both markets, and Tham says H+K is now competing for “pure-play digital work” as well as communications briefs, which are increasingly becoming consultative projects. In Malaysia, 20% of the firm’s work is now integrated digital work, while Singapore is currently operating two pure digital and social media programmes.  

What she tells all of her managers, Tham says, is not to be afraid of the difficult client conversation, as the long-term rewards are significant. That begins with cutting out the jargon.

“How many times have you heard that, ‘this is best-in-class digital, best-in-class communications’. Best in whose class? Is there a class somewhere that I missed?” she jokes.

More seriously, telling clients what you think they want to hear, or just accepting their brief on spec, is a bad start.

We go where the narrative needs to go, and I would never sell anything to my clients just because we have the option.

“The approach is never, for example, just adding more channels or saying [as a client] ‘our competitors are doing this, why aren’t we?’ Set aside the competitor conversation. If you can’t pin down your vision, there’s no point talking about your competitors because you’ll always be playing catch-up,” she states.

“Sure, it’s a hard conversation. But sometimes it’s not the most efficient use of their budget, so we’ll change it, and they love that honesty and candour.”

Similarly, trying to over-sell services to clients because you have them, rather than tailoring to their needs, is a dangerous path to tread.

“We go where the narrative needs to go, and I would never sell anything to my clients just because we have the option,” Tham says. “Sure, you make some money for the first six months, but after that it’s just pain all round and it’s bad business.”

It all comes back to honest conversation, and Tham says for H+K, this approach has meant the agency’s current client roster is full of brands that are willing to take calculated risks, which means innovative work, and also build genuine trust with the agency.

“It forces us and the client to have real discussions about the strategic choices we’re going to make,” she says, “So we never find ourselves in that uncomfortable position of saying, hang on, why are we doing this?”

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