Over the past ten years, we have watched survey after survey depict a trend away from well-established ad agency-client relationships, and toward project/vendor transactions. A recent example can be found in RSW/US’ 2017 New Year Outlook Survey. This trend can be attributed to a number of advertising industry challenges: the rapid shift from traditional to interactive media; client focus on measurement and analytics (data) over brand-building and awareness; and the rise of procurement departments as intermediaries between client decision-makers and agencies, to name a few. But we’d like to suggest another reason for the apparent breakdown between agencies and clients—the embrace of digital marketing over traditional media and a resulting reliance on new, interactive service providers over traditional ad agencies.
Traditional agencies have long focused on building relationship with clients, learning their businesses, brands, competitive challenges, customer preferences and on and on. Many interactive firms, on the other hand, are more focused on technologies and analytics—on what can be done rather than on whom they are doing it for or whom they are reaching. This emphasis on technology over insight runs counter to building client-agency trust, especially as digital advertising effectiveness and its lack of transparency are being questioned. Clients have begun to believe that interactive marketing is a scam boosted by agencies enjoying media kickbacks on digital ad buying.
Clients are hungry for solutions to business problems. Many agencies are now so focused on skills and execution, they have neglected relationships and allowed problem-solving to become secondary to speed and the latest technologies.
In this traditional-to-digital transition, have we reached a tipping point between a client service orientation, and a focus on technology and channels? Has the rush to offer digital services broken the best practices of our 100-year-old industry and destroyed the agency-client relationship?
We’re Bleeding Tradition
As more younger, tech-savvy people enter the marketing industry and older ad people retire, we are rapidly losing the traditions of service and relationship building. Once those traditions and knowledge workers are gone, we will truly be back where the industry began… just a bunch of middlemen providing minimal value between clients and the media.
Smaller ad agencies are still well positioned to work against this shift in focus. On the whole, we tend to work more closely with our clients at the C-suite level; are typically less focused on interactive marketing as the best or only solution to marketing goals; and are more inclined to develop integrated marketing plans that build brands and meet specific objectives. Larger ad agencies are driven by different requirements, thanks to their high overhead; smaller agencies run leaner operations and respond with greater agility and speed to clients’ changing needs. But we cannot assume our agencies will evade the client relationship problems reported in the industry surveys.
Steps to Building Trust
Strive to keep the focus on account management and retention as your agencies work to win business, grow current accounts, and build long-term relationships with clients. Train agency employees to keep a client service focus at the fore of all agency processes, work and initiatives. Encourage employees to use downtime to read client/industry news, do customer research and meet with account service people to review client needs and wants. Teach employees how to interact with clients to build trust and connection. Include clients in agency events and activities, and ask to be included in client community projects.
Seek to acquire and keep clients whose products, services and values are aligned with your own passions and values. It is far easier to dedicate your efforts to clients in whom you truly believe and for whom you want success. Agency passion is also a big trust builder. Who doesn’t enjoy being the focus of partner enthusiasm?
Bring your best ideas to these carefully cultivated and nurtured clients. Do work for businesses you can proudly point to and say, “ We did that. Aren’t they a great company?”
Set clear goals and report on your success. Remember that demonstrating your value means measuring the success of your programs and projects. Propose risk/reward compensation arrangements and then deliver beyond the goals. Be accountable to enhance perceptions of your value. Show them that you “get it.”
Make sure you tell your clients how much you love working for and with them. Include them in awards dinners and promote them as you network. Refer business to them. Bring them gifts—an add-on service at no charge, or a personally-delivered thank you gift for recommending you to a prospect. Send an annual report letter detailing all you have accomplished since last year. At every opportunity, sincerely express your appreciation for their trust, and reassure them that you value the relationship.
The emphasis you put on client connection will pay you back in loyalty and stronger relationships. And your agency team will become better at making those connections. Building trust is part of your job as an ad agency—neglect it at your own risk.