Madhukar Sabnavis
Jun 13, 2011

Madhukar Sabnavis' Blog: The Importance of Relationships

Madhukar Sabnavis, country head, discovery and planning, and regional director, thought leadership, O&M India, says relationship building in the business of advertising is as important as knowledge and ideas

Madhukar Sabnavis' Blog: The Importance of Relationships

I was sharing the podium with a famous film director at an induction session of a mass media course in a Mumbai college recently. The filmmaker spoke first and he spoke of the famous ‘Friday’ fear that most of his fraternity have when their films release. The director waits with bated breath for the audience verdict. As most film makers tend to make at best one film a year, they go through the pangs once a year. Speaking after him, I unconsciously said in advertising, we have many more such Fridays every year -and it’s so true. Every time a campaign breaks, we don’t know whether it’s a hit or a miss - whether the campaign will jingle or bungle. As individual reputations are not made or broken, it isn’t as high profile as in filmdom; but every campaign does its bit of adding to or subtracting from a relationship the agency builds with the client.

When I joined advertising in the 80s, I believed clients are buying ideas - and good ideas sell themselves. In fact, the concept of relationship building was looked down upon. It conjured up pictures of ‘wining and dining’ and ‘supplicating yourself to a client’ for business. We believed that the need was to earn the respect of clients; love will follow. However, over the last two decades I have learnt that clients don’t buy ideas or solutions alone - they buy trust. Deep down, most clients know that every campaign is a ‘gamble’. How much ever research you do- pre or post, exploratory or evaluative, you will never know for sure how a campaign performs until it hits the market place. An idea presented by a junior doesn’t sound as great as the same one presented by a senior who has had years of successful campaigns behind him. At a superficial level, it might sound as client buying people rather than work- but digging deeper it’s about client buying the faith that the campaign could work because of the ‘authority’ of experience telling him so. 

In our brahminical society where knowledge and ideas are kings, it’s not surprising that relationship management is seen as a menial task. There is glory in creation and stimulation but not in the softer skill part of pursuation and selling. However, selling in advertising is not just about helping someone see value in an idea but to make him feel comfortable with it - to hold his hand and guide him to implement it. I remember an occasion when a client approved a script- a daring one. While I was returning from the client’s office, he called back and spoke to me for over fifteen minutes to be reassured he was doing the right thing- it was a right ‘risk’ to take. My creative partner, who was with me in the car, wondered ‘why is he so nervous, he has just to do it’. It hit me that often in release of ideas, client’s risks are much higher than an agency’s. It’s the individual client’s career on the block; it’s the more nebulous reputation of an organization called agency that’s at stake at the same time. We need to remember that clients live with an idea much less time than an agency and a client’s appetite for risk and uncertainty is less than an agency’s.

In today’s world, relationships are built on both respect and love. It’s important to to earn both if one is to win the trust and faith of clients. For this, it’s important to understand that relationships are built between people and not between organizations. Think of the clients you work on, they tend to be organizations.  Think of your best clients and they often tend to be individuals- where individual relationships have been struck. Relationships don’t happen just like that. Just as great ideas and solutions are built on the back of some really hard work and knowledge, relationships too are built on a lot of hard work and understanding. Assuming relationships will grow on the back of continuous good work is a leaving it to both chance and time. Working on building the relationship is smarter.  For that, the people in the game are as important as the challenges the business is facing, the frameworks that exist to solve them and the solution that is delivered.  Relationship building needs the same painstaking craftsmanship as is needed to create a brand or generate an idea. It’s about sweat, blood and tears- not so much about knowledge and brilliance but about understanding the people we are interacting with and forging a bond that builds trust and faith. Like in a marriage, six Cs are critical- Commitment, Counsel, Compromise, Companionship, Compassion and Chemistry. The last- Chemistry- is the magic that happens between individuals. Interestingly, ‘Counsel’ is only C that is hard skill driven; the rest are softer skills.

The role of good client servicing partners, in this context, is important. If creative skills are in magic and ideation; and planning skills are in empathy and consumer knowledge; client servicing skills are in people and relationships. This does not mean that they don’t understand business or consumers or ideas- the knowledge is essential to provide the ‘counsel’ in the relationship- but they also need have the softer skills of relationship building. Good client servicing people are able to suffer the pain a client goes through, are able to provide companionship in tough times, are able to smartly ‘give and take’ to provide a platform to sell a good idea and are seen as committed to both the business and individual. They are able to see the client organization needs as well as the individual client’s goals and are able to manage and balance them intelligently.

While we are in the ideas business, it’s important to recognize that ideas need to be sold and that becomes easier if one has good client servicing parters who have mastered the art of managing relationships. Their trust provides the confidence to clients to buy daring work. If creative people are over indexed on imagination and planners are over indexed on curiosity of human nature; client servicing people are over indexed on sensitivity. It’s the combination of these three skills that makes magic- great ideas- see the light of day. It’s time to recognize the value of these skills and celebrate them. And accept that this too is specialized. Relationship building in our business is as important as knowledge and ideas.

Something worth thinking about.

Views expressed are personal. Contact at

Campaign India

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