I’ve been ruminating on an opinion piece I read in Adweek last fall. Written by 4As’ CEO Marla Kaplowitz, the article describes a challenging environment in which “clients [are] behaving badly, treating agency talent disparagingly and [in] inappropriate ways.” At HDMZ, we’re lucky enough to rarely (dare I say, never?) experience such discouraging behavior from our clients. However, Kaplowitz’s article resonates with me, not because of the poor agency-client rapport she describes, but because of her outline for client-agency relationships.

What Kaplowitz describes is how we, at HDMZ, have always tried to work with our client partners, developing relationships that not only arise from solid business foundations, but also are built on a cornerstone of human kindness and empathy. In her article, she makes the case for an “agency code of conduct,” and suggests building this code around some of the following tenets:

  • Be human – treat others with respect and empathy
  • Be fair – provide reasonable compensation and terms
  • Be vulnerable – open up about where you lack experience or knowledge and ask questions to learn
  • Be candid – own your issues and acknowledge organizational challenges
  • Be curious – embrace the power of creativity to produce business-building solutions

At HDMZ, we have our own internal code, which is the lynchpin of our culture. Some of the keys of our code resemble elements of Kaplowitz’s vision for the agency-client relationship: live and love your craft; embrace empathy; don’t be a jerk; we over me; and enjoy the ride. 

For me, the best business relationships emphasize the human element on both sides of the equation. I believe that our internal focus on empathy permeates our client partnerships, especially during the difficult phases of a project or when our collective sector continues to navigate a challenging economic environment. 

Borrowing from Pat Doody of Wong+Doody in Seattle, HDMZ advocates for a 51 percent to 49 percent partnership with our clients. The tenets of a good client relationship resemble the elements of a healthy personal relationship with a spouse or partner. 

Ultimately, the best business relationships are not purely transactional. These rewarding relationships are about understanding and empathizing with the people and their humanity on both sides.