Nurturing successful client-agency relationships

Industry expert Khaya Dlanga speaks

Mongezi Mtati chats to Khaya Dlanga

“There is massive mistrust between client and agency. When things go wrong, it’s the agency’s fault. When things go right, it’s because of the brilliance of marketing. That’s not successful collaboration,” says marketing executive Khaya Dlanga in a conversational interview with Mongezi Mtati.

Successful client-agency relationships take great effort, but when that investment is made, they yield even greater returns, ensuring real returns on investment (ROI). Khaya Dlanga, a best-selling author and content creator, shared some of his creative strategies and insights on partnership.

Breaking barriers

Dlanga believes there’s a massive gulf between agencies and clients. He remembers how people treated him when he shifted from the agency to the client side. “I’d go to industry events, and all of a sudden, people who’d never had time for me were saying, ‘Hey Khaya, how are you?’” 

It was a stark demonstration of the power imbalance between the client and the agency. Dlanga’s character shows up when he admits that he found those exchanges annoying when many other people would have lapped it up. He didn’t even want staff to serve him coffee in meetings, as he was capable on his own.

I asked him how we could lower this kind of barrier. “Like all agency people, I want good relationships with our clients but also need to be able to challenge them when necessary.”

Serve the business, not the person

He believes things go wrong when the client takes precedence over the brand. He likens this to politicians who want to leave a legacy, even if it’s at the expense of their constituents. 

The solution is to keep the strategy front and centre. It should remain the guiding document, what Dlanga calls “the true north.”

Serving the client instead of serving the brand frustrates everyone involved. Worse, it discourages a true partnership between the client and the agency. 

He recalls a Coca-Cola campaign they worked on, a good example of the role collaboration and serving the brand played. The work went against what research suggested should be the direction and became an international award-winning piece of advertising.

Building bridges

I admire how he presents strategy, and tactics with clients and I wanted to know how he broached difficult topics. His answer? “Some clients only meet with the agency twice: When they brief them and when the work is presented. That’s not a partnership, and that’s when things go wrong.”

When working for brands, he never wanted to do everything via client service. He nurtured his relationship with the strategy and creative teams so they could ask him any question at any time. This enabled a true and proper understanding of the intention of the brief. 

It also led to those massive debates that would get very passionate, and often there’d be complete disagreement. But it was always about what was working and what wasn’t, never about a whim – or “me, me, me,” as he puts it. They would lead to mutual understanding, with everyone united in achieving the same objective.

Teaching sessions

Dlanga’s unusual approach sheds light on how brands should rethink their collaborations with agencies. “There are very specific things that happen in the back end of the business that you sometimes forget to mention in the brief. They come out in the teaching sessions.” he admits

Don’t be curious, be complacent

So how does the award-winning marketer, author and podcaster keep his creativity flowing? His answer is not a surprise. It’s curiosity, and he believes that losing your curiosity leads to complacency. 

He says participating in the world is an aid to understanding and insight. “I can judge the work that is presented to me because I’m active in the world rather than just being an observer sitting in an office. I think you have to feed your brain and experience life if you want to create something meaningful. “

Ancora Imparo 

He keeps in mind the words of Renaissance artist Michelangelo who, well into his 80s, famously said, Ancora Imparo – “I am still learning.” Dlanga displays the same humility even though he’s led brands such as Rain, Amstel and Coca-Cola on the client side and been a highly successful creative and strategist on the agency side. 

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. Listen to the full conversation here.

This article was published in INC Africa

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