Why marketers get the agencies they deserve

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Clients dissatisfied with their agency may need to check their attitude

This time last year, I was editing Campaign's sister brand Marketing and we did a little private survey of what clients thought of their agencies.

There was absolutely nothing scientific about our methodology, and I’d be lying if I pretended we had sliced and diced our respondents by sector or budget or anything even vaguely robust. But what we ended up with was as rigorous as plenty of reports that land on my desk proclaiming to be an insightful, in-depth study into a fundamental tenet of our business that’s going to revolutionize the way we see and do things.

Despite the shamelessly patchy approach, a few coherent themes emerged from our poking around, and many of them are echoed by ISBA’s survey of client attitudes to their agencies. Many of the marketers we spoke to described their creative agencies (big, small, traditional, digital) as "uncollaborative," "expensive," "opaque," "self-absorbed." There were plenty of positives, of course, but these tended to be less consistent across respondents. In a similar vein, the marketers ISBA surveyed said that their agencies were less profound in their strategic thinking compared with the last time ISBA asked the questions 15 years ago. And fewer clients are satisfied with agency cost control and transparency.

That’s pretty damning. But hardly surprising. Gripes about agency transparency and efficiency are perennial, and the recent squeeze on budgets and agency fees has no doubt contributed, ironically, to client concerns over agency transparency. Add in the fact that many of ISBA’s respondents work in procurement and you can see why this is such an issue. But it’s not one agencies can easily dismiss as paranoia any more. Transparency is only going to become more of a pressure point as the industry’s automation continues apace.

The perceived decline in ideas generation and strategic thinking is more troublesome, but surely related. For some corporations, their own marketing department is a cost that has to be continuously counted, justified and, ideally, reduced. No surprise, then, if they find their advertising agency isn’t delivering "work that gets strong marketplace results" or "contributes significantly to the standing of our brand." If they’re not paying properly for "profound strategic ideas" and don’t respect agencies as business partners but see them as commodity suppliers, how can clients expect an elite service?

Because what’s blindingly obvious from all this is that clients get the agencies they deserve. If you’re a client who consistently finds your agency under-delivering, you certainly may need to change your agency. But it’s just possible you may need to change your attitude first.

Claire Beale is global editor in chief of Campaign.

This article first appeared on campaign.co.uk.

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