When our friends at RSW/US issued their 2019 New Year Outlook Survey, the following finding caught our attention:
For 37 percent of agencies, 61-100% of work is now project-based. Another 34 percent of firms say projects account for 21-60 percent of work.
Project work is now the dominant format for agency-client relationships.
Many smaller agencies bemoan the change from retainer-style relationships to project assignments, and understandably so. Agencies must work much harder to stay in the client’s roster of top project agencies, versus the old-style, long-term relationship where the agency and clients worked together over multiple projects, bonding and becoming true marketing partners.
But too many agencies seem to feel they must settle for the new project relationships. Instead, try thinking of every project as a potential steppingstone for getting back to the long-term relationship that provides the greatest value for agencies and clients alike.
Using Projects to Open Doors
Whenever you are assigned a project, make an effort to build an integrated program as a response. Integrated marketing helps to multiply the impact and effectiveness of any marketing effort. Failing to pitch a better plan ensures that clients will not see you as strategic or as more than just a producer/vendor. Always try to elevate the project into a program.
Also, seek ways to develop more intimate relationships with client contacts outside of the client-agency relationship. Find organizations where client and agency personnel can meet and collaborate as business leaders, so that they see you and your people as peers in their community. Look for ways to connect—share useful news items, send them a referral, or just remember a birthday or anniversary. In other words, pursue project clients as if they were new business prospects you are looking to win. You need to pitch some woo to win their hearts.
Is It More Than a Project?
Remember to assess project work based on opportunitypotential, not just revenue. Could the project be your agency’s entrée into a lucrative ongoing relationship? Will a project you might have deemed not valuable a few years ago be a must-do today because it opens doors to bigger projects? This means you should qualify every project invitation, just as if you were qualifying a new business prospect. What is the potential return? Are their values and brands aligned with the agency’s? Will they give you room to do good work, and trust your recommendations?
Know what you feel you can afford to spend as weighed against what you might gain from a project pitch. What are some obvious red flags that pitching for a project is a waste of the agency’s time?
- Too many agencies invited to the pitch – If the client can’t narrow the field to where your odds of winning become reasonable versus the cost and time you’ll need to expend, decline the invite. (One agency owner says he has seen a correlation between how many agencies are invited to pitch, and that client’s lack of respect for the work and the creative process.)
- An entrenched incumbent is part of the pitch– The review may be a mandatory, but the client has no intention of moving to a new agency.
- Insulting payment terms– You get to decide what YOUR payment terms are. Never let a client dictate terms to you.
- Demanding rights to all pitch creative… without payment– NEVER give away your work. Most agencies today wisely say “no thanks” to clients who require pitchers to surrender their ideas as part of the pitch process.
- The invited agencies are from different disciplines – Does the client actually know what they’re looking for? A lack of preparation on the client side can indicate a chaotic decision-making process, and a rocky relationship ahead.
- Would you pursue the client if they were referred or on your new business list? If you pre-qualify a project client and they don’t meet your new business criteria, don’t pitch.
A Client Is a Client Is a Client
Just because it’s a project and not an agency-of-record relationship, don’t allow your work to become lackadaisical. Every project needs to be executed at an A-level of quality and agency commitment. To engage with clients, commitment, enthusiasm, and willingness to pour everything the agency has into making projects a success should pay back in increased business from those clients.
And yes, we know that is a big “should” in light of clients’ current disdain for outside marketing partners. Just remember that agency-client relationships tend to be cyclical; we’ve been through the in-housing/projects cycle in the past. Ultimately, clients decide there are marketing needs that they cannot take care of effectively with in-house or project-only relationships. Put your agency in the position of being their most strategic project agency, and you’ll be first in line to become their agency of collaboration.
Project work has always been a fine entry point for agencies to get in the door at companies they really want to partner with. So don’t mope about lost retainers. Look at projects as being served an opportunity to break through.