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You’re Not Samuel L. Jackson: What Clients Need to Know About Client/Agency Relations

With the ever-increasing ubiquity of on-demand viewing services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, etc, there has been a decline in cable viewership. At least in my household. TV, once the dominant force in entertainment, has been demoted to live sports and… well honestly for me that is about it.

On occasion, in order to avoid commercials, I will switch away from an NBA game and see what the cable networks have to offer. In the process, I have come to realize that I have a particular propensity for a certain type of entertainment during timeout breaks. I love 90’s action films.

More often than not, I find myself watching Air Force One or one of the two Jack Ryan films that Harrison Ford starred in. Sometimes Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. That part was obviously a lie because I would rather watch commercials. In all fairness that isn’t a fair dig, it is so easy to knock that movie — it’s Hollywood’s stationary target.

One movie I have recently found myself watching regularly during commercials is the Samuel L. Jackson drama The Negotiator. Ever heard of it? Well, it grossed $50 million on a $49.1 million budget, so imagine my shock that you haven’t seen it.

Brief Summary of the Plot (Trust Me This is Important for the Rest of the Article)

Danny Roman (Jackson) is one of the finest Chicago PD negotiators. His partner tells him that people are stealing pension money and drama ensues! His partner is murdered and Danny is framed for the murder and for the one stealing the pension money. Danny decides to take a few members of the internal affairs department hostage and requests Chris Sabian (Kevin Spacey) to negotiate with him. It becomes a clash of the titans (too cliché?) as Danny and Sabian use negotiation tactic after negotiation tactic against one another.

I would like to look into some of the tactics that agencies often employ to make you, the client, aware of them so that you can be in the best position to succeed. A quick disclaimer, not all of these things I am about to describe are negative things, many of them are positive and help agency/client relations and companies grow.

My main reason for pointing these things out is to make you, the client, feel more comfortable and empowered. A great agency should have nothing to hide from you, so great agencies have no reason to hide this information.

Never Say No

As I mentioned, not all of these are negatives. There is a wonderful scene in the film when a less experienced negotiator is speaking with Danny and is visibly flustered (and justifiably so, Danny is a master negotiator) and continues to tell Danny no, whenever he makes a request.

“Never say no to a hostage taker, it’s in the manual. Now, are you going to tell me no again?” - Danny

“No.” - Farley

“No? Wrong answer! Eliminate no from your vocabulary.” - Danny

There are some things that clients ask for that are out of the realm of possibility. This could be due to budget constraints, lack of resources, or because it is simply impossible. The role of an agency is not to say no, but to provide you with options that are possible and can get the same or similar results for you.

If you are with an agency that is telling you “no” there are two reasons for that.

  1. They lack the experience or expertise to give you what you need or lack the ingenuity to figure out a plan B.
  2. The don’t care about you.

Both options are red flags. Great agencies can do what Ryan Holliday describes in his book The Obstacle is the Way, “In life, it doesn’t matter what happens to you or where you came from. It matters what you do with what happens and what you’ve been given.”

If the agency you are with cannot take what has been given to them, and pivot to give you something resembling what you need, it’s time to move on.

Information is Power

In an emotionally powerful scene, Danny becomes enraged by the lack of cooperation he is receiving from the Chicago PD and the FBI. It is at this point that he takes one of the SWAT hostages who tried to attack him and kills him.

Well… not quite. He discharges his weapon over the phone line to give the impression he killed the SWAT (played by Hank from Breaking Bad). He has now convinced the negotiators that he is capable of anything and he is not to be messed with.

In business, this is a dangerous quality that either an agency or client may have. The desire to withhold information from the other side. This is generally for petty reasons — ego trips — to watch one side or the other fail.

As a client, if you are withholding information you are either an insufferable client, or you don’t trust your agency with that information. The former is on you and I recommend figuring that out, or no agency great or terrible will want to work with you. The latter can be remedied.

I will speak a little more about trust later on, but basically, if you don’t want to give your agency all the facts, they will not be able to help your business grow. If you are willing to sacrifice success over information, you are doomed.

Bluffing

Recall in the movie that Danny’s partner is killed for looking into people stealing pension fund money. He mentions to Danny that his informant provided him with this information. Thus, if Danny can find the informant he can clear his name.

Chris Sabian tells Danny he found the informant, and Danny has a little chat with him. After a little back and forth Danny steers the conversation:

“So Nate tells me you played ball with him at Colorado State. That right?” - Danny

“Yeah, but what's this have to do with anything?” - Cale (the informant)

“He went to Arizona State. Put Chris on. Nice try, Sabian. Your little bluff didn't work.” - Danny

This is never good, on either side. If either party has resolved too bluffing, something is terribly wrong in the relationship. Remember, this is not a hostage situation, and you are not a hostage taker.

Agencies often bluff to cover their butts, and clients bluff to do the same. It is childish at best and at worst, destructive. I believe that each side is well within their rights to call BS on anything. It might not even be necessary to call BS — if something is said or promised, ask to see that thing. It is better to mistakenly call a bluff than to ignorantly continue in a toxic relationship.  

Don’t Get Emotional

Emotions are a natural part of human nature, but we are all adults and hopefully, we are all professionals. Emotions can lead to regret and impulsive decisions. Calculated decision-making is more often than not the most efficient way to do things.

In the movie, some of the Chicago PD get emotional about the information that Danny is learning about them. This in turns leads to an emotional and unprovoked attack to end the hostage situation leaving one of the hostages killed by the SWAT team.

Emotions can be used to motivate and inspire but when it comes to decision-making, it can be detrimental to agency/client relations. For long-term success, I recommend taking a step back, taking a deep breath (and another deep breath), and discussing options and plans of attack rather than being reactionary. Don’t let the actions of others make you react. The time you spend taking those deep breaths allows you to become proactive, thus making you the agent of your destiny and not the victim of it.

Trust is the Secret Sauce

Let me guess, Alex is going to talk about trust again. Yes, I am. If you have a problem with it, there’s the door. (Please imagine me signaling to whatever door you have in the room, and if you don’t have a door… well, this just got awkward).

I bring this up time and time again because people struggle with it, it is extremely difficult to put the fate of your company, life, well-being, whatever it may be in the hands of another person. People like to have control, but sometimes you have to let go.

People who can’t trust tighten the grip more and more until whatever breath there was is snuffed out.

Remember the bluff Chris Sabian did? He made up for it with Danny by helping him escape to go get the evidence he needed to bring down the bad guy(s). With that rebuilt trust Danny was able to confide in Chris again at the movie’s climactic scene. *Spoiler alert* It all works out.

With a loosened grip and common goal, anything is possible. As the client, you limit yourself and your capabilities by not trusting your agency to shoulder some of the responsibility that you have. And if you have a hard time trusting, that is either a character flaw or a sign that it is time to say goodbye to whatever agency you are with.

Here are a couple recommendations on how to build trust:

  1. Get updates on the progress of projects
  2. Be involved, but remember to also be a little hands off
    1. They’re the professionals, that’s what you’re paying them for
  3. Talk about things that aren’t work-related
    1. We get so wrapped up in our time that we don’t want to spend a few moments to get to know one another better
  4. Praise good work
    1. Nothing will give an agency more pride and desire to work on your account than knowing you appreciate their contributions
  5. Keep your ego at the door

You Aren’t Samuel L. Jackson

I recognize that comparing agency relations to a hostage situation is tongue and cheek. However, I feel like the movie illustrates the more dramatic side of how interactions can take place between the two sides.

You want an agency that:

  1. Cares about your business
  2. Has your business’ interests at top of mind
  3. Share common goals
  4. Is enjoyable to work with

You deserve nothing less. There shouldn’t be a need for extraneous negotiation and constant back and forth. Once the trust is built and you know that your agency wants what’s best for you, it should be smooth sailing from there. Yes, there will always be bumps here and there, but you and your agency will be ready for them. Because you both have come together and have found your common purpose. If you don’t have a common purpose with your agency, might I recommend 97th Floor. ;)

Note: I may or may not have used scenes from The Negotiator as euphemisms for situations I have experienced over the last 15 years of being in the workforce. The world may never know.

Alex Skinner

Alex is a Campaign Manager at 97th Floor, overseeing a team of marketers and content creators. If he isn't working he is eating or cooking.

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