When Two Become One - Building Great Partnerships Between Clients and Agencies
There have been many articles written on the challenges of the client/ agency relationship in the market research world. Most that I’ve seen have taken the form of one ‘side’ or the other bearing their frustrations at what they see from the other side of the fence. Indeed, the very language we use seems to set that divide in stone: ‘Do you work ‘agency-side’?’ ‘Have you thought about moving ‘client-side’?’ etc
In reality of course getting to great consumer insights which drive an impact within a business is a value chain rather than a divide between two sides. It requires everyone to step up and step and do their bit – great people, working collaboratively to produce great work. This week the industry will come together to celebrate the ‘best of the best’ at the MRS Awards so it felt like an opportune moment to share some views on what I see as the key conditions which allow this kind of relationship to thrive:
Sadly there are just too few people in the industry who have worked on both sides of this imaginary 'divide'. I’m proud that I started right on the coalface, working as an interviewer and then in field before moving into a research exec role. When I worked as a client, I actually found it a huge advantage to understand the very process of getting research done. Equally, when I returned agency side as an MD, the understanding of what clients were looking for from their partners was invaluable.
More mobility in the industry would undoubtedly help here and, as more clients choose to in-source (look at media & creative here) and technology starts to commoditise some of the heavy lifting agency side, this more fluid career path feels like an inevitability. This can only be a good thing in my book. However, we can also accelerate this; Clients can send their graduates to agencies as part of their induction programme (not for a week but for a meaningful amount of time to understand what its like). Equally, I believe agencies should actively look at secondments/ placements as a way of providing career development to their up and coming execs.
We hear a lot about ‘trust’ these days; our declining trust in everything from brands to institutions. However, it cannot be under-estimated just how important the T word is in this context. When a client commissions a piece of work, they are placing their reputation in the hands of the agency they choose. This is at the nub of a huge number of the oft-bemoaned client behaviours but I would urge anyone who has worked in agencies all their career to stop and reflect on this for a moment – what would you do if your worth was being judged on the work of others?
This doesn’t just work one way, however. I got my fingers burned relatively early in my agency career when a senior client (who shall remain nameless) denied all knowledge of the various decisions she had signed off (even the ones in black and white). The account was a car crash and it was clear that it was me who would be seen to be at the wheel. This drove counter productive behaviours on all sides with everything having to be formally agreed, double and triple checked before anyone could move. So, when the CEO or CMO is banging the table, the acid test is whether the agency and research buyer are united as one team or is the client stood behind the CMO throwing additional grenades?
I talked earlier about research being a chain. My observation is that in many cases, this chain has got too long. The number of individuals (both within agencies and clients) who are involved between the person asking the question and the person doing the work needs to be as short as possible but often it passes through multiple layers…. Chinese whispers. We all know a bad brief leads to bad work yet often in larger agencies I see work passed from pillar to post. In big corporations, organisational design specialists will talk a lot about spans and layers; stripping out complexity by removing the number of layers between the CEO and the customer and increasing the number of direct reports senior managers oversee to avoid micro-management.
There are some good analogies here to the client- agency relationship. Ensure clients are working across a sufficient breadth of programmes to avoid them micro managing the client but equally ensuring agency teams are as flat as possible to ensure everyone in the team feels direct accountability for the end delivery to the client.
At this point I’m sure many of you are feeling that these principles are all well and good but give us something practical. So, here goes, five quick fire observations which are deliberately not set up as a client vs. agency list!
1. Communication - E-mail is the devil. No-one ever built trust or empathy threw e-mail. Ever. Meet. Pick up the phone. Video call. Use e-mail when it’s necessary but never as a screen or in lieu of a meeting. Clients, try to involve and engage the end client as much as possible to avoid the Chinese whispers effect.
2. Pitches take time – I hold my hands up. As a client, I never realised how all consuming the new business process can be for senior agency teams. If senior teams are spending time writing you proposals, they’re not working on your debrief. Think about when competitor pitches are necessary vs. when it’s more beneficial to agree a rate card up front. When do you need a full proposal vs. when you need something more simple. Agencies, don’t be afraid to ask this question either!
3. Ask questions , a lot of questions – That probably sounds obvious (especially for researchers!) but I have seen many account teams with almost no understanding of what previous research or what other data exists on a particular subject but have never asked. Equally, the client who inherits an ongoing programme but remains blissfully ignorant on why a project has been structured in a particular way. Don’t be afraid to challenge the brief or challenge the status quo.
4. Know the business – OK so this one is more pointed at agency land but you need to live and breathe the account. As a first step, take an interest; buy the product, shop the stores, ask your friends. However, this isn’t enough – read the business press, read the annual reports, sign up for news alerts etc so you start to get a grasp for the commercial dynamics in category. Businesses talk in pounds not percentages.
5. Give and ask for feedback – this is essential at all stages of the process. For proposals, a no response or an e-mail which says sorry the other agency was cheaper just isn’t good enough. Someone has put a lot of time into that proposal. Call them and explain why you’re going elsewhere. Agencies, if you don’t get feedback on what happened to that brilliant idea from the last project, ask! What’s the worst that could happen?
Undoubtedly, our industry and the roles within it are going to evolve significantly over the next few years. These changes will throw up challenges to the established ‘norms’ for both client and agency roles and tt will require all of us to work together to find our path. There are some incredibly smart people in every part of this industry – with a good dose of trust, empathy and openness I’m sure we can crack it…
If you’d like to chat about how you can get more from your client/ agency relationships please just give me a call.