Understanding your clients: Perils of the inside track

One of the lessons one picks up in business school is the importance of environmental scanning as a business practice. I agree with the notion that all things are good as long as they are done in moderation but I think our industry takes competitor intelligence and understanding our clients too far.

Mumbai train tracks by Alistair Mokoena

Being aware of one’s surroundings helps one anticipate and prepare for eventualities. The environment needs to be scanned for trends, innovation, threats and opportunities. After all, no organisation wants to be caught unawares like the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand.

Competitor intelligence

Competitor intelligence is one form of environmental scanning. In the advertising industry, this means understanding the following questions (and I know many agency heads who grapple with these on a fairly regular basis):

  • how other agencies run their businesses
  • how they are organised and structured to make money
  • what capabilities they are likely to invest in next
  • what gaps exist in their client portfolio and therefore whom they are likely to go after
  • which of their people have itchy feet and are susceptible to poaching, and, lastly
  • which of their clients are unhappy and looking for a new suitor

Yes, competition is a good thing and must be celebrated — but not when it encourages espionage and back-stabbing:

  • I don’t agree with employing dodgy tactics to find out about my competitors’ vulnerabilities and using these to entice their clients and staff members to stray from the path of virtue.
  • I have a dim view of people who wish failure on others and I stay away from those that celebrate other people’s misfortune.

Not at the expense

Don’t get me wrong; I love competing for business and for talent, but not at the expense of good neighbourliness and fair play. The world is too small for you to burn bridges and, as we know, karma is a witch with a capital b.

It warms my heart when other agency heads pick up the phone to say, ‘Sorry to hear about your loss, you’ll bounce back.”

My heart leaps with joy when I receive a bottle of Veuve out of the blue from a competitor for winning a new business or much-coveted double-breasted silverware of a feathery kind.

Understanding our clients


Another form of environmental scanning that we, as advertising professionals, take too far is understanding our clients.

Of course we must get to know our clients intimately so we can achieve success together and build strong, enduring relationships with them. I encourage doing a Google or a LinkedIn search ahead of meeting clients for the first time. It gives you a sense of who you are dealing with, what their background is and who they know.

Phoning around for references is also an acceptable thing to do.

What do you do?

The issue, as with all intelligence, is what do you do with it once you’ve gathered it?

  • Do you use this background information to charm clients? Some find this these stalker tendencies to be forward, over-familiar and creepy.
  • Do you use it to prepare your team for what’s to come? Sometimes, this inside track only serves to breathe fear into your agency to the point where it paralyses you into semi-comatose compliance when dealing with the client. As Shakespeare wrote, “Cowards die many times before their deaths”.
  • Do you use it pre-empt and therefore counter your client’s character flaws? My advice is walk into a new relationship without any pre-conceived ideas because you just might bring out the best in your client.

Every broken relationship has two sides. What you hear via the grapevine might not be the gospel according to the New Testament.

Soliciting the inside track

In the spirit of understanding our senior clients better, some of us solicit the inside track from unsuspecting junior clients. Again I ask, “What do you do once you hear that your client doesn’t like you, wants to fire you and is flirting with your competition?”

  • Do you confront the senior client with this information?
  • Do you give your competitor the evil eye at the next industry function?
  • Do you retaliate by going after your competitor’s clients?
  • Do you up your game and start over-servicing your seemingly disgruntled client? Don’t you worry that you might freak them out by being overly nice, nimble, cheap and super quick all of a sudden? It seems odd that you would address all the complaints they have never raised with you. Some clients will react with great joy but others will get pissed off and dismiss this new resolve to fix issues as “too little, too late”.

As I said in the beginning, intelligence gathering is important and necessary. The trick is to use this information wisely and constructively.

Handle with care

Espionage can be addictive and harmful and must therefore be handled with care. Don’t be a slave to the grapevine. Create your own reality and stick to your game plan.


Written by PH

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