In an era dominated by digital communication, the value of real-life interaction in business relationships often gets overshadowed.
Yet, for agencies looking to forge authentic bonds with their clients, especially in sectors like higher education, healthcare, and cultural institutions (where the physical spaces house the brand and the experiences), there's no substitute for in-person engagement. And no matter the vertical, there are still people at the heart of every business - and people who care about one another do better work together.
The Value of Physical Presence
I know it means a lot to my clients when not only am I present for early in-person interactions, but so are the key players on my team that will be helping me lead the work. I can't imagine how it feels to have the inspiring and compelling sales team land a deal, only to have the B team roll in for the half day of performative meetings that are more about checking boxes than building foundational strategy and trust.
Relationships matter, and as we learned during the pandemic, no amount of Zoom time can substitute for the emotional connections and moments of inspiration that can only occur when humans spend time together.
The Necessity of Real-Life Connections
Even fully remote agencies tout their in-person quarterly gatherings. Why? Because there is no better way to foster real connection, commitment, and understanding than spending time together in real life. And if it's your job (and your team's) to understand a client, their challenges, their brand, their goals, and the people that are part of that effort (employees, staff, consumers, etc.), then it is critical to spend that time together - throughout your relationship, particularly at the beginning, and at key moments thereafter.
To separate the "work engagement" from the "relationships created between people" nature of our lives doesn't do anyone any favors, and sucks much of any life blood right out of the work that will get done.
The Importance of In-Person Meetings for Relationship Building
Rae Ringel, in an article for Harvard Business Review, highlights the importance of in-person interactions, especially for relationship-based goals:
"Relationship-based goals, which involve strengthening or repairing connections among team members, are usually accomplished most effectively in person."
And within this truth lies another "must have" from my perspective, and that is that the person who has the ultimate control on the agency side for how much effort goes into that client work and the standards that it is held up to internally should be involved in every one of those critical relationship building meetings or conversations.
We ask that of our clients, why shouldn't they expect the same of their agencies?
The Impact of Real-Life Engagement on Agency Work
When I was running my former agency, Fastspot, I worked almost exclusively with higher education and cultural institutions. I knew how important these relationships and experiences were, forged in time spent together in real life. There was no way we would have come up with some of the defining concepts that resulted in work resonating with the target audiences and key stakeholders if we hadn't spent considerable time on-site. Each place, whether it was Yale, Kenyon, Stonehill, Brooklyn College, Peabody Conservatory, MICA, or Brown - was wildly different in the ways they felt when you were on campus, or speaking with their faculty, staff, students or alumni.
There was no way to genuinely feel this by just perusing their existing catalog of marketing materials (probably why they were hiring a new agency), but it would be an injustice to try to improve upon those prior efforts by relying on that existing material to inform how you move forward. As they say, garbage in, garbage out. A truly nutritious multi-course meal is required, that is savored by the team, examined, discussed and reviewed, and revisited often. This takes time, and time is required for anyone to develop meaningful enough experiences that can be communicated to others in the most impactful ways.
The same was true for the museums, which are even more beholden to attracting visitors to their physical locations. I can vouch for the fact that reading about The Spy Museum, and visiting The Spy Museum are two very different experiences. You get my point. And yet, as budgets tighten and timelines are compressed, even clients begin to accept the removal of the in-person discovery sessions, the meetings, the face time - writing it off as a non-critical formality. Many agencies are more than happy to accept it as well. It's not profitable to be flying teams of people around the country for several days immersed with a client, or agencies are too afraid to put those fees in front of budget weary clients during the proposal process. I'd argue we may be flirting with a scenario where we are devaluing the most important parts of an agency / client relationship, instead opting for standardization, process and "sameness" that passes the sniff test, but doesn't do anything more.
Evolving Perspectives on In-Person Interactions
As McKinsey & Company found in their recent article "Organizing for the future: Nine keys to becoming a future-ready company," the nature of real-life meetings has evolved significantly, just as almost everything in our working lives has. Authors Aaron De Smet, Chris Gagnon, and Elizabeth Mygatt highlight the need for businesses to reexamine their organizational identity and operations in response to the pandemic, emphasizing the importance of purpose, speed, and learning in future-ready companies. As the article notes, the most successful companies today have several similar characteristics: they know who they are and what they stand for; they operate with a fixation on speed and simplicity; and they grow by scaling up their ability to learn, innovate and seek good ideas regardless of their origin.
They argue that it is imperative to "Take a stance on purpose" citing:
"Future-ready companies recognize that purpose helps attract people to join an organization, remain there, and thrive."
And when you work in client services, the "purpose" of your clients is where you should be investing much of your time and energy. It results in better work, and it ensures that the team is fully invested - because they care. It is very difficult to convey this purpose, and the overall culture of an organization, without spending time with the people who make it what it is, where they do it, and learning what their collective "purpose" really is.
Building Trust and Collaboration
I personally cannot develop the level of trust and confidence necessary to achieve exceptional outcomes without spending considerable time with the client and the teams involved in doing the work. Sure, politics and bureaucracy are real challenges that must be navigated to get the best out of the effort while ensuring strong buy-in and momentum among various groups. You need someone on the team able to play this role, gracefully guiding everyone along, while leaving room for healthy disagreement and the natural push and pull of the creative process.
Ideally this is built into your agency's purpose already, so this kind of engagement is not just dictated, it's expected. That means that the valuable time spent together is optimized, streamlined, and maximized for the most important things to be sought after, and there is an expectation that challenging and insightful questions will be asked, and innovative solutions will be considered in lieu of traditional or routine outputs.
I want my clients to know we're in the arena with them, standing side by side, ready to win the battle together. Through these experiences, victories, and sometimes setbacks, we continue to develop and hone our skills together because we know each other well. Let's face it, work is hard, and life is harder. But forming camaraderie, trust, and mutual focus between your team and a client can make both work and life better. If you don't invest in time forming meaningful relationships, the work will suffer, people will care less, and projects are more likely to fail or go nowhere.
We can do better, and while it can feel like a lot of time and effort, there is still no substitution for human connection and authentic experiences fueling collaborative and creative work. And I'm more than OK with that.