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Client-Agency Relationships Demand Renewed Focus: Trust Building

Our good friends at agency search and new business consultancy RSW/US conduct an annual New Year Outlook survey projecting trends and highlighting areas of focus. Their most recent survey revealed a number of interesting insights into the state of client/agency relationships in 2017. All of them highlight one key factor that is missing in many modern client/agency relationships—TRUST.

Clients demand that agencies “do more with less.”  Clients have high expectations from their marketing partnerships… while simultaneously parsing every bill, rate change and fee. They want high value service and results, but don’t want to pay for it. They underestimate the expertise needed to manage marketing automation, and for all their cries for strategy and big ideas, they want immediate results and have little patience for long-term execution to a plan. They demand complexity for too small budgets, yet complain about the complexity of tactics and execution. They claim agencies suffer from “shiny-object syndrome” even as they clamor to try unproven technologies because “it’s cool,” and someone they know is doing it. It’s difficult to even be a project vendor in this environment.

What we see happening is a breakdown in strong client relationships. While some of this may be attributed to the barriers of procurement departments and clients’ obsession with data and marketing automation, some blame can be laid at agencies’ feet because of a decline in account service best practices.

So while agencies must try to be as efficient and effective as they can within ever tightening budgets, they should also focus on building trust. Trust is the key to enduring client relationships. If you have stopped working on maintaining those relationships, re-dedicate your agency to client service. Elevate your planning and strategic offerings to a higher level. Proactively bring ideas to clients, and make them feel valued. Yes, building relationships is hard work. But we can’t reconnect with dissatisfied clients until we show how much we want that relationship. Don’t pander or kow-tow—bring better ideas and accountability to the table. Be a marketing consultant, and demonstrate how you can help the client to their goals.

Movement toward in-house marketing departments. Agencies’ perceptions of clients shifting more work in-house are greater than what marketers say they are planning. The uptick in client in-house marketing is cyclical—we’ve seen this before. Clients try in-house for a few years, then start shifting marketing back to agency partnerships when they discover in-house does not work as well as an objective, third-party agency for at least some elements of marketing. Clients also discover that managing an in-house marketing department introduces unwanted elements including politics, silo scheduling conflicts and the time suck of actually doing it all yourself—higher overhead does not balance with better results. Practice patience:  smart agencies should aim to work with internal design/marketing groups, supporting and collaborating to help clients improve overall marketing results. To work with in-house teams, you must balance and integrate in-house and agency work, and build trust with in-house people.

Traditional and Mobile Media Spending. Marketers expect to increase traditional media spend; agencies’ expectations are that traditional media will not see significant change. Meanwhile, agencies are enthusiastic about mobile marketing; clients… not so much. Marketers continue to be heavily invested in digital marketing, including social media—despite growing evidence that digital is neither as effective or validly measured as digital marketers claim it is. And for all their investment in data analytics, clients are as guilty of “going with their gut” by ignoring what the data tells them as creative people—especially if the agency offers the data. Trust is the missing factor; but trust only comes through building that more intimate connection with CMOs and marketing staff. When agencies demonstrate that their media recommendations work, clients are more willing to stop chasing random cars down the road and climb into the front seat with their agency. (woof)

Increased project work. Agencies report being assigned more short-term, one-off assignments, and fewer campaigns or long-term marketing programs. Agencies feel they are being pushed off onto an island where they have no connection with the client’s overall marketing focus. Our strategy is to treat every project like a program, and upsell that ad into, for example, an ad + radio + search + social media. Do not let your agency be shoe-horned into a vendor/executor position. Develop projects using integrated media plans to boost effectiveness and impact. Build case studies showing how effectiveness increases with integrated media tactics. Trust is the bridge to escaping the project island. In fact, be strategic, and proactively bring ideas to clients. Be a marketing consultant, not just a maker of ads.

Marketing Automation. Like many industries, the ad biz is contending with the shift to computerized marketing technologies. Agencies can either get on board, becoming specialists in these technologies (good luck if you aren’t already there); or, agencies can compete at a level above ad-serving and email messaging. Automation can offer speed of data management and analysis, but it can’t yet generate human-based insights or actually conceive a product or service innovation. Again, be strategic, approaching everything you do with a planning mentality; base your work on strong research and consumer knowledge; and always be alert for opportunities to recommend and propose initiatives.

Trust is not just about doing great work that works. Trust is about chemistry, friendship and understanding. The ad agency profession has always involved some degree of client hand-holding and well-honed listening skills. Be the people your clients turn to when they need help with problems, and maybe a shoulder to cry on over the latest data compilation. Be worthy of that trust by always keeping the clients’ needs front and center. Your focus is to boost your clients to new levels of success. If you aren’t quite there, give your lenses a thorough cleaning and take a fresh look at the situation. Once you see it, you can make it better.

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