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Worldwide Partners

Five areas to improve client-agency relationships

Five areas to improve client-agency relationships

The relationship between brands and agencies needs some TLC. So we carried out global research with both sides to find out how to improve it

Campaign teamed up with Worldwide Partners (WPI) – a network of over 70 independent agencies worldwide – to carry out research about the ever-evolving client-agency relationship, surveying over 600 brand marketers and agency leaders across the world.

The mission? To find out what makes the relationship tick, what makes it stick, and where it can be improved to foster better ideas, more successful campaigns, and drive growth for all parties. Here’s what we found. 

1 Honesty counts
One marketer said that having a trusting relationship with an agency “was the secret sauce to deliver the best work I have ever produced in my career”

While most brands and agencies believe the work is the most important determinant in a relationship, what else builds trust? Brands believe clear and honest communication is a vital ingredient for driving business growth: at 81% it was second only to strategic thinking (82%). It was the same top two for agencies, but with a bigger gulf between strategic thinking (85%) and clear and honest communication (75%). This tells us there’s room for agencies to use the simple power of communication to an even greater extent – especially in a world that has normalised remote communication.

2 Continuity’s paramount
It is, however, much easier to communicate when you are working with the same people throughout a project, from pitching to delivery. The majority of marketers (74%) prefer to work with agencies when the team that pitched for the work delivers it as well, or at least some of the same team. Fewer than 2% of marketers expect to work with separate pitch and delivery teams.

“Having to continually explain the brief to agency staff beyond the management team,” was one criticism from a marketer. Another was: “In many cases there are too many managers involved in pitches, people who don't actually do the donkey work. So the original message can often get distorted when it goes down the line.”

Read: Agencies need to keep the team constant from pitch to production. 

3 Ideas rule
While an effectiveness track record (45%) and a customer-centric approach (45%) are also both very important to brands, if an agency is presenting great ideas, then they’re more likely to move into pole position to win work. 

Every good campaign comes from a good idea, so unsurprisingly it is the crucial factor when selecting an agency. Specifically, 61% of brands said they select an agency partners, with 61% saying it is very important based on the quality of their ideas.

And agencies cite great ideas as the leading factor for winning new business (54%). This might seem self-evident, but it’s a reminder that the creative environment is critical to a campaign’s success. Great ideas won’t happen if an environment is too narrow or insular. 

4 Overpromising kills
Marketers’ biggest pain point, at 74%, is agencies that oversell and under-deliver. Again, it’s also a matter of trust: 95% of brand marketers said that agencies delivering what they pitched was important or very important when it comes to trusting an agency partner.

Agencies should be open about what can be delivered, and that helps to avoid issues further down the funnel. But there are two sides to every story: “Clients put unrealistic expectations on us, but make us plan towards them and then make us answer for under-delivery at the end,” says one agency leader. 

This sentiment matches the two biggest pain points for agencies: Unrealistic expectations on cost (60%), and being treated as a supplier rather than as a partnership (52%). It’s also a matter of trust: 92% of brands said cost discipline was either a very important or an important factor when it came to trusting their agency, while 86% of agencies said it was very important or important when it came to building trust with clients. 

These pain points around value and cost are solved if both sides understand the commercial imperatives and values of each business from the start of a relationship. This should include mutual data- and insight-sharing. Being honest and open about costs throughout the process means agencies are less likely to find themselves over-promising and under-delivering, and if brands showed agencies a bit of partnership TLC, they’re more likely to create a relationship where agencies feel empowered and motivated to create great work. It’s win-win. 

5 Acknowledgment matters
Marketers said they most value the fresh angles on their businesses that agencies can provide. And 71% of agencies say positive feedback from clients is the best part of client relationships. But not everyone gets it. 

“It’s very hard to find a client that rewards the agency for its outstanding effective work that has an outstanding impact on business,” wrote one agency lead. “Instead, you pitch for every project and have the pressure to deliver every time under the constant threat of ‘you will pitch or I will fire you.’”

This again shows the importance of communication and treating the relationship as a partnership. “What we most enjoy is clients rewarding us with more business or when they tell their CEO that the agency did a great job,” said another agency lead. 

For the best relationships build brands and careers. One marketer said that having a trusting relationship with an agency “was the secret sauce to deliver the best work I have ever produced in my career.”

Taking action 

This wasn’t just research for research's sake. Campaign and WPI took the results to Cannes and held the Marketer’s Manifesto Summit, where a room of leading independent agencies and brand marketers digested the survey, and discussed and debated what it means for the client-agency relationship. 

They then presented a series of ideas across five core areas: pitching; communications; delivery and output; value and cost; ethics. There was great discussion around sticking to briefs vs flexibility, keeping costs under control vs unrealistic expectations, delivering what was asked vs being treated as a supplier and much more. Crucially, there was a whole lot of honesty, mutual understanding, and a recognition that a healthy client-agency relationship lifts up both sides and creates better work. 

Campaign took those ideas and debates and finessed them into 10 pledges to improve the client-agency relationship, which you can read here

“This demonstrates what we can do as an industry in just a short period,” says John Harris, president & CEO at WPI, who was at the Summit. “These were very solid, constructive, and insightful conversations that show it wasn’t a venting session for attendees but rather a step forward for our industry. This set of pledges points the industry in the right direction.” 

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