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Ian McAteer, Chairman of The Union Group, was recently asked to contribute an article for the Scottish Tourism Alliance’s newsletter, the ‘Talker’, on the subject of ‘staying close to your customers’. We reproduce his thoughts here.

The first piece of advice my first boss at Saatchi & Saatchi London gave me, back in the mid-80s, was that my future value to the agency lay in the quality of my relationships with my clients. Everything else was academic.

After 35 years in business I have long since realised that he was right – there is a brutal simplicity to servicing clients when providing advertising and marketing solutions. I have always remembered his words – the relationships we have with our clients are the defining factor in business success or failure.

The quality and efficacy of our agency’s work – whether it be an ad campaign, website, digital marketing project or a sales promotion, is, of course, critically important. However, and this is the key point, unless we provide that service in such a way as our clients enjoy the process, feel listened to and in control of the project, we’ll probably never work with the client again. Thus our goal in all our work is to make the process as painless and smooth as possible for our clients.

Ian McAteer discusses customer care

“The goal is to make the process as painless as possible for our clients.” Ian McAteer of The Union.

Being totally honest, we don’t always get it right. Ours is a tricky business; our product is often subjective, and marketing is an inexact science – or is it an art? This can lead to conflict and disagreements. Also, the production process for a TV shoot, or a website, or a field marketing project, or any campaign, is riddled with opportunities for things to go wrong. All of this makes delivering a consistent service extremely challenging.

However, if we focus on our clients, on being closer to them and striving to build the best possible relationships, then we at least have a better chance of success.

The key to success, we think, is based on the following five principles:


Unless you really see the world from the client’s perspective you are going to struggle to build a great relationship. Empathy with, and understanding of, their market, their customers, their challenges, and their business objectives, is critical. But we need to be careful that we don’t lose sight of the fact that our clients are paying us to offer them something different. They don’t want clones of themselves – they want inspiration, creative thinking and marketing excellence.


Some make the mistake of seeing business relationships as between two or more businesses. But businesses are just artificial legal constructs – they are populated by people. And people relate to other people. So in all our dealings we focus on the client as an individual. We aim to understand their needs, approach and preferences. Without this it’s impossible to build trust and long-lasting relationships.


This may be obvious, but so many of our competitors give clients what they ask for, and nothing more. We aim to do what’s required, and then think creatively as to what we can add. We keep our promises, but we also try to surprise our clients by over-delivering. Ours is a fast-paced, highly competitive industry, and unless we strive for excellence in all we do, we will be the ‘dead fish’ swimming with the current.


We may find marketing undersea pump connectors dull. Or building a trade stand for cement wool bricks a bit of a yawn. But if we ever let it show, we won’t be working for that client for long. Because for our clients it is their business, it’s their job, their career and their life. A good agency will put people on the account who are passionate about the product sector, who have enquiring minds, and who develop expertise and enthusiasm for the client’s business. If I were a client, I wouldn’t expect anything less.


I have seen a few projects where the outcome has been excellent. The advertising campaign is great; it wins awards and gets the desired sales results. But then, after the work is done, the agency is fired. Why? Because the process was too painful. Client and agency fell out badly over how the project was managed. Logic says that this shouldn’t be so. But it’s human nature; and we ignore this principle at our peril. We have the responsibility, by hook or by crook, to ensure our clients enjoy working with us. The experience is everything.

Just like the song: “Tain’t what you do. It’s the way that you do it. That’s what gets results.”

The Scottish Tourism Alliance is the largest member organisation for tourism businesses in Scotland and the leading representative body for its tourism industry.