Mar 17, 2021

Building a Better Agency/Client Relationship, with Stacey Singer

apple google email

Stacey Singer loves agencies. She believes that when they are at their best, agencies are unmatched in the value they can bring clients. Stacey's 25+ year career has given her a unique perspective on what drives client retention and growth.

She has successfully led and grown multiple agencies specializing in different marketing disciplines from advertising to market research—and in varied business situations from a 3-person start-up to a 1,000 person turn-around.

Before starting her consultancy, Stacey developed and led an industry-first global, client satisfaction program for the world’s largest marketing communications company. This work gave her great insight into what clients value most and how agencies can differentiate themselves.

Stacey now helps agencies keep and grow business. Her work includes consulting and training on an account, office, network, or holding company level.

What you’ll learn about in this episode:

  • What key trends Stacey has identified within the agency/client relationship that have been accelerated by the impact of the global pandemic
  • Why it's crucial to do the work needed to truly understand your clients' needs and pain points, and what important role client services and account managers can play in this
  • Why there is a trend toward clients working with more and a broader variety of agencies, and why culture can be an important competitive advantage
  • Stacey shares a favorite, easy exercise to help you better see from someone else's perspective and develop greater empathy
  • Why your incentives, rewards and systems should be tailored to and reflect the values your company believes in
  • What steps clients can take to maximize the productivity and collaboration of their relationships with the agencies they work with
  • What key turning points and moments Stacey has experienced over the arc of her career, and what lessons she has learned as a woman in business leadership
  • What skills marketers should develop to be successful today, and why soft skills can help you adapt to the necessarily nimbleness in today’s market

Additional resources:  

Show Transcription:

Intro: Welcome to A Brave New podcast, the podcast all about how brave entrepreneurial companies are unlocking their business potential using inbound marketing. Here is your marketing expert and host, Polly Yakovich.

Polly Yakovich: Welcome back to A Brave New podcast. This is Polly Yakovich, and today I'm speaking with Stacey Singer who has a vast, vast agency experience career and is now consulting with agencies, helping them to provide clients with a better client experience. She's going to describe more about that and what that looks like. Our conversation, it's very agency-focused, but I think it's really valuable for both clients and agencies as we work together, as we collaborate on bringing the best product to our customers and our companies. 

So, I really think you're going to get a lot of value out of our conversation. She talks a lot about bringing cultures together. We talk a lot about things that we can do to improve the client experience, and then therefore the end product for both clients and agencies. It's a really great conversation. So I'll get right into it. Stacy, welcome to the podcast. 

Stacey Singer: Thank you. I'm happy to be here. 

Polly Yakovich: So, I've talked a little bit about our conversation, but I'd love for you to share your bio and just let people know what you've been doing, what you do now to get a sense of your experience, your vast experience. 

Stacey Singer: Great. Well, I started my career at a 60 person, independent agency and a few months after I joined, they were purchased by WPP, which is a large holding company. That began a 20 year wild ride of that agency. They had tremendous growth and success and I, because I was there and part of it, got to open new offices, new services and it was wonderful. When I ended my 20 years there, I was one of three managing partners and we were 600 people. So it was a-

Polly Yakovich: That's incredible-

Stacey Singer: Great experience. Then I went to work for WPP, the parent company, and I ran one of their largest global team accounts. The task there is to use the vast resources of WPP and take these different agencies with different specialties, different locations, different identities, different cultures and bring them together as one team on behalf of the client. 

Polly Yakovich: Wow. Hard job.

Stacey Singer: Very hard job, wonderful experience. I'd like to say I got my PhD in psychology and organizational behavior because how you get people who you really have no authority over to act as if they're one group was incredibly challenging. I think a lot of that, and we'll talk about it is part of what drove me to the work I'm doing today. Just understanding the team dynamic and the client dynamic in a different way.

Polly Yakovich: What are you doing today? 

Stacey Singer: Well, I left WPP two years ago, and now I am consulting with agencies focused on helping them keep and grow business and as I said, a lot of it comes out of the experience of working on that account. Then I'd also in my final time there run a global client satisfaction center of excellence. So, it was the interesting end chapter to get a sense of what matters most to clients. 

So, I brought that experience to the work I'm doing now, because what I discovered from all that is just the impact on client experience, on client success. I think a lot of agencies, in my experience, don't really focus on that and I think they're missing something that's incredibly important.

Polly Yakovich: I really want to dig into that. First, I'll ask you, we talked a little bit about this before, but why agencies? What do you love about them? What do you hate about them? Why have you been involved with them for so long?

Stacey Singer: God, I really do love them and I love the energy and I miss, actually with COVID, I miss the energy of being in an agency. I think there's a couple of things I really love. I love this combination of business and psychology, and creativity. It's a unique business and they're all things that intrigue me. You get to do them at one time. I love the people that work in agencies that are often really smart and also clever and funny and I love that they're businesses, but they're very entrepreneurial. Like you can sit in a meeting and imagine something and then the next step you could Photoshop it so it's so, and then you figure out how to make it really so, which is just incredible. So, I just love the sense of possibility.

Polly Yakovich: What do you think makes agencies so unique for people who work with agencies, but think they're crazy animals or people who are intrigued about working at an agency?

Stacey Singer: That's a good question. I think to work at an agency and be successful, it is this very bizarre combination of on one hand, part of your brain is very processed and regimented. There's specific workflows and creative briefs and things that are very defined, and then the other part of your brain is completely undefined. It's about all the possibilities. 

I think some people are drawn to that and I think some people think it's incredibly strange. People ask over the years, "Would you ever want to work on the client side?" And I have great respect for clients. It never appealed to me for a minute.

Polly Yakovich: Interesting. I think you do have to have a touch of the crazy in a good way to thrive in an agency career for a long time, because it is. It's nimble, it's fast, it's always changing with this thread pulling through, like you said, of all the regimented process driven stuff so you can actually produce projects on time. 

Stacey Singer: What I always loved about agencies, because they're basically small, big businesses. Even if you're in a giant global agency, it's individual offices and individual teams. I remember one of my first agency experiences, I was looking at something, a status report or something rather insignificant but I said to my manager, "I think there's a better way to do this. I think we should do X instead of Y."

He said, "Okay, let's try it." It's just that easy at agencies to change things. The work I'd had before I started agencies in large corporations, it would take months to get anything to happen and that's just not my temperament. I have a real action orientation and I love the idea of just jumping in and doing.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah, absolutely. How would you say, you alluded to it a little bit, but talk a little bit about that agency-client relationship and how has that evolved in the last few years? Maybe impacted and accelerated by COVID, but what are trends with the agency-client relations?

Stacey Singer: It's a great question. I think on one hand, the relationships have been, they're more project-oriented and they're shorter term, certainly the one I started in this business and people talk about it being much more transactional, and COVID's probably accelerated that. There was a, I think it was an Adweek Survey that said something like 40% of clients are looking to expand their agency roster and the other 20% are not sure. 

Assuming that's 60% of people switching agencies. So, I think because the stakes are so high for clients, they don't have a very long time to prove themselves, the stakes become high for agencies. They have to prove themselves and their value very quickly. So, in that sense, it's very different than when I started out and this idea that you'd have these relationships that were 20, 30, 40, 50 years.

On the other hand, when you talk to clients, so many things are exactly the same that when you peel back what makes for a good relationship and what clients want, and that was what I thought was so interesting, the work, it's completely unchanged. So clients, they want their agency to constantly be focused on how to grow their business. They want their agency to have their back, and sometimes that means figuring out how to get something done and cheating the system. Sometimes it means saying to the client, "Absolutely do not do this. It's a horrible idea."

They want their agencies to be transparent about their capabilities and their costs and those kinds of things. They want the agency to be committed and to show up every day like it matters. Those things, the way you show up is different. Now it might be, "Am I on camera on Zoom?" It might have been, a year ago, "Am I physically driving into your office?" 

It's amazing. The core things are very, very similar and in fact, they're probably, in some ways, more important because the relationships are so tenuous that they really want to make sure they have so much cognitive dissonance when they hire an agency because so much is at stake. They really want the agency to demonstrate how committed they are. So I try to focus on the part that stays the same, because it's actually an easier part to control.

Polly Yakovich: Talk about that a little bit. What is the part that stays the same that you like to focus on?

Stacey Singer: Well, I think that when clients hire agencies, they often hire them because they have a great experience in a category or case studies or well-known, talent, but the skills and behavior that become important after they've hired them are very different and this idea of client experience becomes important, which is really how the agency shows up every day.

Because the client starts to expect that you're going to do good work. That's a given. So now it's this idea of, do you make it easy to work with the agency? I think that people tend to underestimate the importance of that and they don't focus on it, they don't train for it, they don't monitor it. 

Many people don't know these skills naturally. So if you're coming to the agency and you're an account person, you're trying to do a good job, but you don't naturally know how to deal with these situations. So sometimes people end up unintentionally irritating the client all day, every day and things fall apart.

Polly Yakovich: I find even when I'm training client teams too, which it's hard because especially after a while you learn to do things intuitively and you forget how to train the team the right way, but you talk about those little things that annoy the client or make their day hard. One of the things I find with teams, no matter how experienced they are, is always reminding them of the context that they're in, providing context to the client. Not assuming they know where the project is, even though they've been working on it, giving them a lot of empathy for what's going on in their day and how you're dropping into their day with something you're asking them to do and making that as easy as possible for them. 

I think those are the kind of, they seem little and simple, but those impressions and those interactions add up if they're not positive or they have to dig for documents or even little, silly things like that all day long.

Stacey Singer: You're exactly right. Most agency folks don't realize that we are only a small part of the client's day and the work that is ... It's not that it's not a priority for them, but it's one of many priorities and our job is to make their job simpler. So something, the example I often give is a client will ask for a budget update, and an account person, in an effort to cross something off their list, sends six Excel spreadsheets. Says, "Here's everything you need for the budget update." It's like, "No, no. I wanted you to do the budget update. I was looking for the email that has the summary."

I think it's those kinds of things, not really understanding, to your point, what the day is like for a client. Then because they don't understand it, they do all sorts of things. Some of them are, as you said, poor communication. Not really being sensitive to the client. One of the things I ask folks when I'm training them is how many of you have asked your clients how they like to work? Particularly during COVID.

Are they early risers or late? Are their kids at home? Do they prefer text or email? Most people will say they haven't asked them, that when they get a new client, they act as if the client's going to drop into the way the agency works versus understanding how that client likes to work. So something as simple as that, people fail to do.

Polly Yakovich: This reminds me too of persona work. Because when we're doing audience personas or anything like that, we're really asking our clients to be empathetic to their customers and understand what it's like to live a day in their shoes. Your budget example is such a good example because it's like, if you are the client asking for this, think about what you would like to receive that would delight you for one and then make your life as easy as possible. You have the summer, you have everything you need. You can even send the six Excel spreadsheets as backup, if they want to go through it all. The points you bring up are really interesting. I'm wondering, do you advise agencies to do like a profile sheet on their clients when they ask them these questions and train the team on how to work with each person?

Stacey Singer: It's one of the things. So some of it is they should, to your point, profile each client. How they like to work. It's good to know a little bit about them. It's good to understand ... So it's sort of factual things. They prefer texts. They're an early morning person. They have a long commute, those kinds of things, but also some of the softer things. So I don't know if you've ever seen it, I think it's from the New York times. It's like 100 questions to fall in love or 30 questions. 

So I do something like that but with clients to try to ask clients questions, when you meet them to deepen their relationship and understand where they're coming from. So what's been your best agency experience. Tell me about when an agency disappointed you. What would success look like a year from now? Because if you know where they're coming from, it'll provide a lot of insight to some of the things that they're doing. 

Polly Yakovich: Yeah, absolutely. 

Stacey Singer: So I think that it's really useful to get at that and again, a lot of times when a new client comes, the agency does agency onboarding and that's mostly being on send. We're going to show you our capabilities. We're going to tell you how we work. Everything is about, we're going to tell you and not enough asking the client about what they desire, what's important to them, how they want to work and how they're coming at this relationship.

Polly Yakovich: I think too, a lot of pushback I've heard in the course of my career is like, well, we can't modify our process for all these clients. We have to train them on how to make it happen smoothly. While that has an element of truth, it's like, you don't have to change your process to meet clients where they're at and move into some of these soft spots and maybe send them an email earlier in the day than later, if that's better for them. I do think there's a lot you can do without having to break down your systems.

Stacey Singer: I think people conflate the two. So I'm not suggesting you change the agency process, but I'm suggesting you think about the way that client likes to work and make it as flexible and as agreeable as you can. So one of the things that clients will say often, this comes off as silly. I get estimates with a note that says, "I have to sign these in three hours, otherwise we won't start the job on time." Well, the job didn't start that day. 

The job started weeks before you started thinking about this job. The thing there is for the agency to send the estimate earlier, which they should be doing probably anyway. So it's just a matter of thinking about how the client is receiving it, as you said, what their day is like, what has to get done but I don't think that means you're breaking agency policy.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah. This brings me to a really interesting conversation and I think this is interesting and helpful for both clients and agencies. Obviously we're talking a lot about in-depth agency stuff, but I think it's nice to peel back the curtain. Obviously you and I have an agency perspective and have been spending our careers that way. Being a client service person within agencies, I've seen the pendulum swing so much on the value of client service. Are we valuable? Are we unnecessary? Are we like a fluffy part on top? Are we integral to the agency? I'm really curious if those conversations have come up in your orbit and how you think about client service as a function.

Stacey Singer: Well, for some clients, I'm a account person by training. So I feel that account people can be incredibly, incredibly valuable. I think in reality, the account people tend to be ... There's two camps. If you have wonderful account people, clients will say they cannot live without them, but if you have poor account people, clients will [inaudible] "Do I really need an account person. Can't I just talk to the program person or the creative team myself?" Is usually a sign of an account person that's not good. 

I think it's become harder and harder and we're probably to blame to identify good account. So I have seen both sides of it and of course a lot of the work I do is trying to improve the skills of account people. I think that there's a lot of account folks who are not receiving proper training. They get hired from their agency. They immediately are dealing with clients. I received so much training so early in my career from so many great people and I don't know what I'd be like without that.

I think that it's tough for this, but then it creates a cycle because they have account people who aren't very good. Then the client says, "I don't want to pay for these account people." Then people have this discussion, "Well, maybe we don't need account people." Then sometimes there's agencies who, who have eliminated the function and some of them it's been a problem because it's tough to do it without account people.

So I'm a fan of trying to go back in and-

Polly Yakovich: Train.

Stacey Singer: Train them and upscale them, but I do understand that I've worked with some account people who weren't very good and they ended up being a gatekeeper and don't really provide strategic value or tactical value. 

Polly Yakovich: I've always been an account person who, and my agency was not a fan of this when I first started out, but I was always an account person who was a fan of giving the client access to their full team, but doing that in appropriate ways so that they weren't calling their writer all day and not letting them actually right but giving them that access and being the facilitator of those conversations so that they felt they had access to everyone and could really interact and be collaborative with their whole team.

Stacey Singer: I think that's generally the way to go. I think that feedback filtered through an account person is not always helpful. So I think people want access to whether it's a strategist or a creative team, they want to get direct access to those folks. I think that's probably the right way to go.

Polly Yakovich: What are clients looking for in agencies that agencies don't know or can't deliver very easily? What are you finding?

Stacey Singer: Well, it depends how you ask the question. I think that when clients are seeking an agency, they will tend to do RFPs about all the things we talked about. I want to know your category experience, how you staff the account and that is how they may select an agency but the experience afterwards is very, very different. Then when you ask them why they might've let an agency go, it often comes back to this idea of them not feeling as if they had the right people, them not feeling that they're committed enough to the account.

So they're always trying to solve a different problem, and I think a lot of clients also feel uncomfortable discussing some of these things. So they just start over. They call it procurement, if they're a big enough company and they start the pitch process and there's this idea that it's going to better somewhere else. Then sometimes it is, but sometimes an intervention and the group working it out would also address some of these issues. 

Polly Yakovich: I found that to be true as well and that kind of leads me in my mind to something that you mentioned earlier, which is this trend for more agency relationships and working. I think there's been a longer debate, like is the agency of record no longer a thing? What are you seeing about clients working with multiple agencies, getting exposure to how different people work, maybe bringing in agencies with their certain niches to work on specific things. How is that working right now?

Stacey Singer: Well, I think that clients are working with more agencies and some of it is because of expertise. The world's gotten more complicated and they want someone who has a very specific expertise, and some of it is because of certain dynamics, I actually think that the agency has been a part of where they feel like they're not getting the support and resource they need. So this way they have five people they can call up instead of one. So they end up splitting the business and they feel as if they have a bit more control. There always the ability to in some ways, pit the agencies against each other to say, "Hey, whoever brings me the best ideas, I have X amount of money." At the same time, with all counsel folks is if you miss the AOR as relationship, act like it's an AOR.

Polly Yakovich: That's a great advice.

Stacey Singer: Treat the client and the business, think about it fully, give it your full self, think about things that they can do to grow the business and think about the project part of it as just the way you're billing. Not as the essence of your relationship. I think one of the things that folks do that I think is not helpful is I'll hear agencies say, "Well, it's a transaction business with each transaction." They'll have a huge relationship with someone and then something will happen on a job and they'll go back and fight over $500.

I'll go, "You're missing the bigger picture," and they go, "Oh no, each job is separate." Each job is separate billing, but then the client's feelings about you, they're not separate. They're part of a bigger relationship. So I find the more that you act as if it's an AOR in terms of your staffing, not moving people back and forth in terms of your mindset, the more that ends up happening. I've worked on businesses that are huge and they're project-based businesses, but they're huge businesses because we treated it like an AOR. 

Polly Yakovich: That's incredible. I think that's great advice. I heard you say one time that you think culture is the only sustainable competitive advantage that agencies have.

Stacey Singer: Yes, because agencies are funny.

Polly Yakovich: They have personalities.

Stacey Singer: It's people. So they do basically the same types of work, basically the same way. I suspect if I went to work at your agency and you assign me a client, I'd figure out how the work gets done. It's not that different agency to agency and in certain cities, it's the same people. So in New York, someone might work at agency A one day and they go to agency B, and yet you can see one agency that's failing and then down the street, the agency's doing well and they're people that came from the first agency. 

So a lot of it has to do with culture. I see cultures that are so positive and can do and collaborative and client focused and that comes through in the people and the work. You could put those same people in an agency where people are fear-based and withholding information and not helping their teammates and the results are completely different.

Polly Yakovich: You talked earlier about your work most recently on bringing cultures together and bringing teams together under a culture. How do you do that well? Whether you're in a client or whether you're in an agency, culture is important to everyone.

Stacey Singer: Well, I think, obviously it's best in the agency side if there is a strong, positive client center culture and that everything that they're doing reinforces that culture, because when people smell that you're saying one thing and doing another, the culture falls apart. Then within a team, I think it's possible to create a secondary complimentary culture. I used to compare that to saying, "Well, you can live in the United States and be a proud new Yorker and be a proud American." You can have these two identities. 

When I was running the global account, people came from all different agencies and they were proud of their agencies and they were great agencies, but we built a subculture to work on this account. We had to, because otherwise everyone was coming at it from a different perspective and it was a pretty straightforward culture. We just say, we're going to work on behalf and do whatever's best for this client and everyone was attracted to it. 

We were one of the early accounts that took that form of WPP and we leveraged people's pioneering spirit. We said, "We're going to figure out how to do this because we are setting the stage for the rest of the company," and a certain kind of person was attracted to that. 

Polly Yakovich: That's incredible. As you were talking, I actually reminds me of a couple of our company values here at A Brave New. One of them is always building, which I think actually used to be pioneering because it's the idea that we're always building something new for clients or ourselves or having that entrepreneurial bent, but the other one we stole blatantly from a client and it gets to what you were saying about earlier. It's positive regard. Have you heard of the principle of positive regard?

Stacey Singer: No. Tell me about it. 

Polly Yakovich: I'm going to butcher it for anyone who's actually a psychologist listening, but the gist of it isn't that you just always think positively about people, but it is about that empathy piece. It's saying like, everybody is doing the best they can in the moment with the tools and resources that they currently have. So even when somebody is reacting to you in perhaps a negative way, it's like, are they really overwhelmed? Do they have a lot of pressure for their boss? 

It helps us as an agency because I've seen both agencies and even marketing team relationships be very adversarial between the agency and the client, or they're preventing me from getting my work done, or they're always a holdup. I've seen them be really collaborative and obviously everyone wants to be in a collaborative environment, but having that positive regard is really helpful. Even when I hear little things bubbling up on our team, like, "Well, they're always late."

I'm like, "If they have a really big job and the thing they're doing for you is like an extra part on the end of their very busy high profile, high pressure day," and it just helps you sort of put yourself in someone else's shoes for a minute and say like, "Oh yeah. If I was them, this wouldn't be the most important thing in my day," and it just helps you reframe, I think with this positive regard to try and understand that somebody is doing the best they can for their own goals, not yours, in that moment.

Stacey Singer: I think that's great. One of the exercises I do, you could steal this because I stole it from someone else.

Polly Yakovich: I will. I steal all the things. I have nothing new.

Stacey Singer: Okay, good. You could steal, but I'll give people something that they know, like the story of Cinderella or something and I'll have them read it and I'll say, "Well, tell me the story from Cinderella's perspective," which is the way that the movie or the book is and that's pretty easy. Then I'll say, "All right, now tell me the story from the prince's perspective." Well, the prince doesn't have the information that you have when you're looking at Cinderella. He's just going to a ball, trying to get married, beautiful woman walks in there. He thinks he has a connection. She leaves. That's his world. Then we'll do it from the fairy godmother's perspective, but it's a similar exercise because it says we all come to it and only see certain things.

Polly Yakovich: That's a beautiful exercise. I am totally going to steal that.

Stacey Singer: It also works great with your kids if they're fighting and you say, "Tell me the story from the other person's perspective."

Polly Yakovich: They hate that. 

Stacey Singer: Yes. I've done it myself personally and I think there's a couple of ... Because client empathy is one of the things that I talk to people. That's a great exercise and then there's another one that I do called same but different and it's when the client does something and you're upset you go, "Well, have I ever done something like that to the client?" So for instance, the client doesn't tell you that maybe they're moving off the business. "How could they not tell me? We're such good friends."

Well, have you ever had information that you didn't share with the client? "Oh yeah. I knew that the writer was leaving, but we weren't going to tell them until we had a replacement," and it's the same, but different. You had a reason for doing this and when you look at it that way, to your point, you get a lot more empathy and it takes down the heat from situations.

Polly Yakovich: I love that. When we were talking about culture previously, you mentioned agency rituals, which I thought was such a interesting and catchy term. What are some agency rituals you've seen or just like team building rituals? What are some things that help you develop a great culture from a rituals' perspective?

Stacey Singer: Well, I think there's things that are big and small. So there's agencies that we'll talk about always learning or building and they'll have team meetings and they'll talk about things that didn't work. They give out awards for happy failures because you can't really learn and try and never make a mistake. So that's their way of saying, we value learning and trying more than we value ... Not that they don't want a good result sometimes, but sometimes you're just not going to get one. So it is a way of reinforcing those kinds of things.

So I think anything you can do where you take this value and then you find something that reinforces it. So I've worked with agencies that talk a lot about imagination and pre COVID, they would have days where they would, in New York, go to museums and do things to try to come up with other ideas and get inspiration for things. So just finding things that take what your values are and then finding other ways to reinforce them, and sometimes it's big things and sometimes it's small.

Polly Yakovich: I love that. That's really inspiring. I think it's helpful too, because something you said, I think is the hardest part of culture is you can always say aspirationally, these are our values and this is who we want to be. Then you put your head down and do the work all day and your team doesn't see proof of those values besides maybe you personally living them out. So finding ways to, I think put your money where your mouth is and take a day of inspiration or make sure you're having times where you come and talk about those failures. If that's an environment where you're wanting people to try things.

Stacey Singer: Even things like, I worked with an agency and they talked about the people being the most important thing. Like a lot of agencies, they had a lot of systems set up and if you were submitting a time sheet and you didn't have 40 hours, you literally couldn't submit a time sheet. It would send it back to you, but if you were crazy enough to submit 100 hours, it accepted the time sheet. So I said to them, "If people are the most important thing, then why don't you call the person who worked 100 hours and say, 'You need help.'" We immediately need to stop whatever is happening here. So it's something as basic as that, where, do your incentives, your systems, your rewards, do these things match what you say matters? 

Polly Yakovich: Absolutely. I love that. It's a great reminder. Looking at the client side for a minute, how would you say clients can be better clients or get more of the good stuff that they need out of the agency?

Stacey Singer: It's a great question. I think companies used to spend more time training marketers on how to work with agencies, which I think was a good idea because they spend a lot on agencies and the switching costs are high. I don't think as many spend time training them now.

Polly Yakovich: Especially if they're managing multiple agencies.

Stacey Singer: Again, it's like what we do on the agency side. We expect that people know how. They expect the clients know how, and that's probably an unfair expectation. I should also say that as an agency, anytime that I can help onboard a client, I do, because I think it gives you an opportunity. Not only to get to know them better, we talked about before, but start to set the stage about what makes for success from your standpoint.

Polly Yakovich: I love onboarding, but I'm a weird account person. 

Stacey Singer: I like it. I think if you start off right, you've got a chance of ending up right, but I would say for clients, they certainly should share and have clear objectives of what they want for their brand or for themselves or their company, what success looks like. I think we have to have a system for sharing data, market research, analytics, sales numbers. Clients who say, "Well, I can't give you any of those things," are undermining your success. 

Polly Yakovich: Absolutely.

Stacey Singer: I want clients to give fair and honest feedback on the work and on the team, and some clients have a hard time doing that and some clients use the work as a chance to build consensus internally and you'll have a client who will say, "We should go left." Another clients says, "I think we're agreeing. We should go right."

You're like, "You're not agreeing. You're actually saying two different things," but they need to get their own organization aligned and give feedback. I think they need to have fair commercial terms, so you can actually build a team. I guess last but not least is humanity, that the client that schedules a big meeting for January 2nd and ruined your holiday break, generally is not a great client. 

I had a colleague who had said once that agency, people are a little bit like puppy dogs and if you just rub our belly every now and then we'll be really happy and loyal and we just need a little bit of reinforcement and a little bit of love and a little bit of consideration and it goes a long way.

Some clients, I guess they range from mean-spirited to just not thinking. I had a client once who set up a pitch the Monday after Easter and we didn't hear it for weeks and weeks. Then I called them and I said, "Not for nothing, but people gave up Easter because they had to travel for this." I said, "And then it's not like we found out that day. It's been four weeks and we haven't even heard."

She said, to her credit, "It just didn't occur to me. My calendar was free that day. It didn't even occur to me that I was ruining people's holiday." So sometimes they just don't know, but humanity goes a long way.

Polly Yakovich: I heard early on in my career and obviously a little bit now, co owning an agency, I have some choice over who we work with and we tend to build really collaborative partner-based relationships with our clients because it just goes so much further to getting the work done. Even when the work is hard or on a hot deadline. When you're really collaborative and partner based with your clients, I just think the work is so much better, but I heard this person say really early in my career, who was on the client side, that he always trained his teams. 

He heard them say, "Oh, the agency this or the agency that," and he would train his teams to think of them like they were their coworkers, because then it provided them that little extra emotional investment, a little better emotional IQ. They thought of them instead of like, this is a service we pay for and need stuff back. It just humanized the relationship a little more like you're talking about with this Easter vacation.

It's less transactional and it was more like, well, if I have to work with my coworker every day, I'm going to work stuff out. I'm not going to hold this grudge about these little things and then just fire them one day because I don't have that power. I thought it was a really a nice way, and this is like 30 years ago, to be training on client team.

Stacey Singer: I love it. I think years ago, people did more of that. There were companies that evaluated their brand managers on their ability to work well with their agencies. It was actually part of their evaluation. So people thought about it and learned how to do it. I think that's a nice thing to do because agency people are people, but I do think, as you said, that you get a better return on investment.

Polly Yakovich: You do. You do. It's one of those soft things where it's like, when you're generous, you always get more back than you give, but you have to go in with that feeling. You are going to get a better return. You're going to get better work. The agency's going to like you better. It goes both ways, I think.

Stacey Singer: It definitely does. I have had cases with clients where I've actually pushed back and said, "You're doing X and you think it's accomplishing this, but what it's really doing is this." 

Polly Yakovich: Of course. 100%.

Stacey Singer: And they've been open to those kinds of things. 

Polly Yakovich: Just briefly, this has been so rich. I would love to just hear from you very briefly in your career journey towards leadership and as a woman in leadership, what are some of those turning points in your career, magic moments that stand out to you that you jumped at, or remember how you showed up for that or impactful for you? I always think it's so helpful to learn from other people about what those moments have been like.

Stacey Singer: Well, it's interesting I think to reflect on and think about in hindsight, because now the expectations, the opportunities for women are different now, and I've learned so much. I have two adult daughters from them, but I think looking back there was a process of, I guess, me changing and society changing and those two things coming together because when I started work, it was in the 80s and there was on one hand this feeling that women can do anything. I always say that there was a popular ad then for a perfume and the song was like, I can bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan and never let you forget that you're a man. It was like, yes, I'm going to work and then I'm going to cook and clean and then I'm going to be sexy.

So it was like, I'm going to do everything. I think that's the way women entered the workforce in the 80s, with this idea that I'm going to do everything. I'm not going to ask you to change at all and I'm just going to be great and I'm not going to cause you any discomfort. I think that's the advice I got from people then was, work hard, head down, don't cause any wave. Just be better. 

That's certainly changed over the years in terms of, I think women being more comfortable being women and expressing those differences. I think for me a big moment was when my elder daughter was born and I just had this Eureka that I needed to change what I call the yes-no ratio.

I needed to say yes to more things that scared me and not feel like, well, if I'm not 100% qualified for that, I shouldn't do it or what will happen and career-wise just say yes to more things and then say no to other things that, whether they were things at work that I thought people were asking me to do, because they didn't think I would say no or things in the rest of your life. You don't need a really bake a cake to bring something to a bake sale. All of those. They used to say, "I'm going to say no to a bunch of things and say yes to other things." So I think that hit me. I guess, the effect of having a child, but that was a big shift in my thinking. 

Polly Yakovich: I love that. Well, it's a nice forcing function too, because agency people are busy, hard working, long hours people and whether you have a child or not, it is a forcing function to say, "I just don't have this time anymore. So I need to think about how I'm managing my yeses and nos." I like the way you-

Stacey Singer: I think that's ... Many benefits to having children, but one of them is it gives you a perspective and there's things you say I'm no longer going to do because it just doesn't work anymore. 

Polly Yakovich: One of the things I appreciate, because I had children much, much older in my career and I see the younger generation doing a better job of setting their boundaries. I always felt like, oh, well I don't have a family at home. So I guess I could take that extra thing even though I don't want to and it's burning me out. Because I don't have the excuse of this more important thing. 

So I really like, and I'm learning from some of the younger generations. You had a really cool story about your daughter too, but just setting better boundaries for themselves. The story about your daughter is that over Thanksgiving, I guess, somebody asked her to do a writing project. And she was like, "Yeah, I don't want to."

Stacey Singer: Yeah. Well, she had said to me, because she's a copywriter. She had said, "I can't believe. It's like Thanksgiving." I said, "I can't tell you how many holidays and weekends and things I worked." She said, well, you ought to question your choices in life," because she was like, "Well, why would I have to do this? This is a made up emergency."

Polly Yakovich: My perspective, probably not the healthiest is like, well, it's COVID and it's a long weekend and there's nothing else going on.

Stacey Singer: That's kind of how I am, but again, I think it's generation. I think this generation is probably healthier and happier. When I started working in the 80s, it was a badge of honor how many hours you worked.

Polly Yakovich: Oh yeah. I fight that in my brain every single day. I do.

Stacey Singer: I think this generation is much more balanced and I applaud that and I think this generation, men ... When I had my kids, my husband is great and he was very, very involved with the kids, but if I had said to him, "You should take paternity leave," I think he would have still looked at me like I was crazy. Now this generation of men is doing that. So you see things keep evolving and I think it's great.

Polly Yakovich: I love it. What areas, just a couple of questions to close out. What do marketers need to do to be successful today? What skills are focus areas? Do you see broad marketing experience being valuable?

Stacey Singer: Well, I think, they talk about these T people who can go abroad across a number of things because so many things are becoming so specialized. So I think there are a need for those kinds of people, because you have to bring it all together. Otherwise, clients would be working with 100 different agencies and none of it will come together. I'm not sure that the clients could handle all that complexity. So I think we definitely need those kinds of people, and I also think there's so much hard knowledge and skills that people are focused on because the world is changing so quickly that they're not really focused, again, on some of these soft skills. Empathy, resilience, resourcefulness, introspection and ultimately, I think people are gonna need these soft skills in order to keep adjusting.

I could not, when I started in advertising, imagine what it would look like now. I can't imagine-

Polly Yakovich: You can't. How could you?

Stacey Singer: I can't imagine what it'll look like 30 years from now.

Polly Yakovich: Absolutely. 

Stacey Singer: I think people have to have those other skills, and other qualities. Being curious, learning, in order to keep adapting. Otherwise, you become the marketer who says, "Well, in my day." Well, it's not that day anymore. So I think that's the challenge for people and for agencies is to manage all the hard and soft skills and knowledge that people need.

Polly Yakovich: I would say my insecurity, early in my year, that now I think is obviously a strength and, not that I still don't have insecurities, as I always would joke, like I had no hard skills. I only had the soft skills, but it becomes nice on a team because a lot of people do really want to, and especially, I think the younger generation really thinks that subject matter expertise is so valuable, but you do need people who can connect the dots and look for the holes and remind people how humans actually interact with things. 

Stacey Singer: I think that's, and maybe in that way we're alike. Most of my career has been, because I have the skills as you do, being able to go into a problem situation and be a bit of a utility player.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah, absolutely.

Stacey Singer: Which for me was a great learning experience. 

Polly Yakovich: Yeah, and figure your way out of those. Sometimes we find ourselves in a box especially on the agency side, doing things certain ways and to find our way out of like doing projects for the first time and building new ways of doing things, it's always challenging to do those things. I think you need those utility players to be able to like, okay, we can't figure out how to solve it all, but this is our next step. So let's take that first. 

Stacey Singer: It's one of the things I love about working with different agencies because you'll see someone put a spin on something and the way they do it, and you can hear, "That's really smart. I never thought about that." So I like that.

Polly Yakovich: I'm jealous of you because I'm like, curiosity is not even a super power for me. It's like a weakness because I'm so curious. I never stop and do the thing, but I love to be able to see into all sorts of different environments and see how people are solving different problems. Must be fun to see them.

Stacey Singer: It's great, and you get that sort of aha moment. Then of course you get to bring them things. You'll say, "Well, you're fighting over this and resisting it and it's so clear what you need to do." Then they have the aha moment. So that's great. 

Polly Yakovich: This has been an incredible conversation. I can't thank you enough for taking the time.

Stacey Singer: It's been great for me. Fun way to end the week.

Polly Yakovich: I always ask people this last question that I stole from a research friend of mine, but I love it so much and I love to hear about different people's strengths. What would you say is your super power?

Stacey Singer: Well, I was hinting at it before. I think that I am able to shrink problems down to size so they can be fixed.

Polly Yakovich: Wow. That's an amazing superpower. I like the way you phrase that

Stacey Singer: Part of it is, people tell me I'm a clear thinker. So I can go into a situation, like a bit of a utility player and sort through what matters and what doesn't and come up with a plan. I basically think most things in life are fixable or at least improvable. So you can go in and do it bit by bit. 

Polly Yakovich: Any last thoughts, pieces of advice?

Stacey Singer: Well, I think the last thought, I guess, as we get out of this is I'm intrigued and it's a challenge for agency owners, what the next phase looks like when we're not in the office like we used to be, but we're not at home. We're having these hybrid workforces, how you manage a team, how you work with a client. I don't have the answers, but I'm intrigued by the question. 

Polly Yakovich: I am as well. Where can people find you, read the amazing words of wisdom you have to share with us?

Stacey Singer: You're very kind. So is my website and they can both contact me through there and I have an ebook that they can check out and articles and all sorts of things.

Polly Yakovich: You'll want to read through all our blog posts. They're really valuable as well. I will link it in the show notes for sure, so people have access to that.

Stacey Singer: Thank you. I appreciate it.

Polly Yakovich: Thank you, again. I appreciate your time so much.

Stacey Singer: Thank you. 

Polly Yakovich: Have a good one banks. 

Stacey Singer: Thanks.

Polly Yakovich: Thanks for listening to this episode of A Brave New podcast. Go to for more resources and advice. If you enjoyed this episode, show us some love by subscribing, rating and reviewing A Brave New podcast wherever you listen to your podcasts.


Polly Yakovich

Polly Yakovich



OCT 11, 2021


The Beginner’s Guide to Generating Inbound Leads

Marketing doesn’t have to be painfully intrusive, like getting yet another telemarketing call right when you sit down to dinner with your family.

Read More

OCT 11, 2021


The Beginner’s Guide to Generating Inbound Leads

Marketing doesn’t have to be painfully intrusive, like getting yet another telemarketing call right when you sit down to dinner with your family.

Read More


Take the first step toward a lasting impression

Interested in learning more? We’d love the opportunity to connect. Let’s have a conversation about how ABN can support you in both building a brand that lasts and exceeding your business goals.

Join Us Today – Our insight helps your business grow.