Client-agency relationships are coming under sharper focus than ever before. Change is a given in today’s business, but in light of the current exceptional pressure on budgets, never before have we felt that so much change is likely to happen in the year ahead.
Factors such as the increasingly active involvement of procurement, globalisation and the empowerment of buyers right along the chain, from clients to consumers, are already changing the shape of client-agency relationships.
Ironically, some say, the marketing services industry has been very conservative over the years and, while promoting bold new creative ideas for its clients, it has been slow to manage its own change and organisation.
Agencies need to ask themselves whether they are just going to let change happen or whether they are going to shape and manage it.
If I could give one piece of advice to clients and their agencies, it would be to tackle and drive change together. In other words, invest in the relationship. Agencies that know and care about their clients’ business retain it longer and win more business. Clients that help and support their agencies get better work and results.
So what can we learn from those clients and agencies that have thriving relationships in these challenging times?
First, agencies need to be client centric. Understanding the client’s market and business and how it is rapidly changing is at the heart of this. We frequently find that this is one of the key reasons why an agency is appointed, yet that understanding tends to dwindle over time. Client-centric agencies are inviting clients in to talk about their business, and one agency I know of has even put a real-time screen of clients’ share prices in their reception.
Second, set realistic expectations. Clients’ expectations don’t change because they might be spending less. Objectives and expectations need to be continually re-evaluated, particularly on how creative work will be judged. It’s becoming increasingly important to realistically manage expectations and be clear at the outset what the work can and cannot affect. The secret to success is creating a mutual understanding and a shared language.
Third, agencies need to be more flexible rather than having a one-size-fits-all working model. Different clients have different needs and agency processes need to be adaptable and capable of being implemented quickly.
WPP’s initiative in creating Enfatico, the world’s largest global start-up, with Dell as its charter client, is deserving of praise for a bold and business-winning idea. There is a lot to be learned from the way that professional services firms manage their client relationships. Leading law firm Eversheds, for example, holds annual process re-engineering workshops with some of its key clients to evaluate how the mechanics of day-to-day business can run more efficiently.
Fourth, encourage behavioural change. The key to sustained improvement is the behaviour and attitude of the frontline leadership and managers. Behavioural change is arguably more important than having the latest software. Management must lead by example if its teams are to deliver differently.
Fifth, don’t neglect personal contact. With time and travel costs under pressure and electronic communication such an easy option, it can be tempting to work remotely. However, face-to-face contact is crucial because nobody has ever built an enduring business relationship through email.
Agencies will be travelling even more to time-poor clients, probably with fewer people, and need to ensure that the people who visit clients are seen to listen and their actions demonstrate that they have listened. The onus is on having teams that are empowered to make decisions and take action quickly.
Sixth, actively measure the relationship. The presumption that because nobody has complained everything is fine is a dangerous path to follow. The strength of the client-agency relationship is a perception in the client’s head.
Feedback as fuel for change
These challenging times demand regular and robust feedback. Resolving a problem is a great opportunity to not only repair damage, but also to strengthen the relationship and create competitive advantage.
Having an open and productive discussion of issues is often difficult and time consuming and an increasing number of clients and agencies find it helpful to use an independent third party to moderate the process.
Finally, consider performance-related remuneration. More clients are questioning if existing performance-related compensation schemes are really enough to motivate their agency. There is a growing consensus that performance-related payment should in some way be linked to outcomes and value-adds rather than inputs such as head count and hours, or outputs such as the number of commercials created or sites produced.
Simon Rhind-Tutt is joint managing director of Relationship Audits & Management