What brands want from their agencies — in association with Weber Shandwick

Specialist consultants are gaining ground on agencies as marketers’ first port of call for business advice, according to new research.

Specialist consultants are gaining ground on agencies as marketers’ first port of call for business advice, according to new research carried out by Marketing Week in association with Weber Shandwick. What’s more, the one discipline in which marketers feel most overwhelmed – measuring return on investment – is also the one in which they feel most underserved by agencies.

The research surveys 128 marketers, the majority being managers or higher, and paints a diverse picture of how they choose and organise their networks of suppliers and partners. It also identifies key opportunities for clients and agencies to enhance their relationships in important strategic areas.

Agencies are still the source marketers turn to most often for advice on meeting the challenges presented in their sectors, with 30 per cent of respondents saying this is where they go for help. However, specialist consultants are not far behind, being favoured by just over 20 per cent of marketers, and almost the same proportion prefer to talk to fellow marketers to address issues.

How are you dealing with marketing strategies

All agencies equal

There remains plenty of opportunity for agencies to perform influential roles for clients in areas where they have proven expertise. There is evidence too that the concept of having a lead agency is gradually becoming outdated in favour of more evenly weighted responsibilities, in line with many people’s predictions in recent years.

A majority of marketers say agencies are equal partners in the mix today, though a significant 42 per cent still appoint one as a strategic lead.

Historical conventions have not been dispensed with entirely, as it is still advertising agencies that most often rule the roster. However, the proportion of marketers who consider them to be the lead strategic partner – just one-fifth – is probably lower today than in the past.

What do you consider to be your primary strategic partner

Digital agencies take a surprise second place ahead of branding and media agencies, while 13 per cent say their PR agency is the primary strategic influence.

More than five times as many marketers say PR agencies are losing ground as say they are gaining ground on other specialisms. There is good news too for the discipline. Respondents agree that PR agencies take the lead on messaging and are a strategic partner, and that reputation management is crucial in a digital world.


The distribution of marketing budget across the agency types broadly follows the same pattern. Ad agencies attract the most spending, followed by media agencies. The highest percentage of budget – a third – goes towards in-house resources, according to marketers’ average estimates.

In terms of how relationships are conducted between clients and providers, there is a general desire among marketers for clear reporting lines. More than half say they manage communication with each of their agencies separately, with the rest either letting the lead agency take care of it or allowing them all to collaborate autonomously.

The value of employing a full-service agency is questioned by more than 40 per cent of marketers, who prefer to have specialists managing individual marketing channels. However, almost as many say they would consider working with a full-service shop if it saved them money on fees.

Recent news reports similarly indicate that brands are wavering over the value of full-service offerings. Apple, for example, is reported to be considering its relationship with long-time partner TBWA following the marketing successes of competitor Samsung. Apple has started building an in-house team to provide competition on various campaigns and projects.

In-house focus also seems to be a developing trend for certain marketing disciplines, as more than a quarter of marketers have taken agency work in-house in the past two years and reduced the number of external partners.

Overall, this has not negatively affected agency business, since most marketers say they are employing more or the same number of agencies as two years ago.

The survey finds several key areas that agencies – or indeed any marketing services supplier – can work on to move up their clients’ pecking order. One is the growing need for scientific rigour.

Measuring effectiveness is named as marketers’ second biggest challenge today after customer acquisition, and it is the only one of nine listed concerns to gain an average rating of over three out of five when marketers are asked what aspects of modern marketing make them feel most overwhelmed.

What do you consider to be your biggest marketing challenge today

To make matters worse, more than a fifth of respondents do not feel that their agencies are delivering the goods in this area.

Indeed, marketers appear to consider data-related disciplines in general to be the greatest weakness of their agencies. Analytics (14 per cent) and personalisation (12 per cent) are the second- and third-most frequently cited deficiencies of agency partners after measurement.

Do you feel undeserved by agencies on specific marketing disciplines

The least mentioned are community management and native advertising, although this is more likely because businesses are not outsourcing the disciplines or not yet doing them than because agencies have these arts perfected.

Industry changes

A separate question in the survey addresses agencies’ more general offerings, as opposed to their grasp of marketing disciplines and channels. It finds that the one most often lacking – keeping them abreast of developments in their markets – is among the easily remedied. Over 40 per cent of marketers would like their agencies to do better at informing them of industry news.

The next biggest failing in agency offerings relate to staying ahead of customer behaviour, with around a third of marketers saying that both future-proofing a client’s business and trying out emerging platforms are areas where agencies do not devote enough effort.

Feeling undeserved by your agencies

This might come as a surprise to many in the industry, given that agencies tend to pride themselves on being ahead of the curve in terms of business and consumer trends. It perhaps reflects an attitude among marketers that there is no such thing as too much innovation.

In the same way that the methods consumers use to communicate every day are constantly evolving, so too are the partnership models that brands are adopting to reach them. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, but it is clear that the key to survival for both clients and agencies is the ability to adapt quickly.

What could agencies do better?

“Find us new and interesting channels to reach our target audiences – our media recommendations are always ‘same old’.”

“Understand changes in SEO and content marketing, and how they can be applied.”

“Have a view on how they integrate with the activities of other agencies and don’t land-grab.”

“Communicate and deliver – neither of which my agencies do. They are missing targets, which we agreed together, and are costing me money through failed projects and reputation through cancelled events.”

Source: Marketing Week, in association with Weber Shandwick

Weber Shadwick

Chair, consumer marketing UK and EMEA, Weber Shandwick

A consistent customer experience remains at the heart of integrated marketing to deliver customer acquisition. But clients are moving away from one lead agency to deliver this integration, with a shift to more equal weighting between agencies. They expect agencies to work well together, but want to manage them separately, with clearly defined roles.  

From our experience, this is mirrored by greater alignment of functions in house, with digital taking an increasingly important role, and PR and social aligning to manage conversations and reputation. It accounts for the reason digital agencies have overtaken media agencies as a lead strategic partner, as clients significantly shift the mix to paid, owned, earned and shared media.

Driving effectiveness

With this shift comes an increased focus on monitoring earned and shared campaigns to drive better effectiveness in real time.  

Clients are turning to PR agencies not just for content creation and social campaigns, but for crucial reputation management, crisis preparation and real-time management. This accounts for the rise of PR agencies being seen as a strategic partner.

The next great challenge for agencies is to provide measurement and analytics to prove return on investment. Technology will continue to transform communications. Proving effectiveness in real time is the holy grail.

Clients are turning to agencies and specialist consultants alike to stay ahead and future proof them. This offers a huge opportunity for specialist agencies. Equally, larger agencies should consider which experts to add to their offer to fend off this potential threat.

Essential innovation

Client-agency relationships are predominantly in a healthy place, but agencies can always do more. It is the job of an agency constantly to bring innovative thoughts to clients – a restless agency is a great agency. 

Technology, innovation, future trends, competitor intel, changing customer behaviour – clients need all this vital information. Agencies must allow space and time to provide it.



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