Tuesday 30 April 2019, Bristol

PM Forum South West’s third event of the year was hosted by BDO at Finzels Reach. Tim Hughes and Mario Vafeas of Bristol Business School at UWE presented the findings of a six-year study (to date) into the relationship between clients and agencies.

They then facilitated a panel discussion on the subject with representatives from clients and agencies.

Why research the agency/client relationship?
Tim and Mario explained the purpose of their research. Quite simply, good relationships are important for achieving effective marketing campaigns. We are witnessing a greater demand for value from clients. And the relationships are complex, with significant input from both sides. 

There is also the interesting dynamic of the impact of digital technology. This is leading to both fragmentation and integration, and the need for new skills. It also creates demand from SMEs, who have not previously used agencies.

Digital disruption is a key theme. They have identified that neither clients nor agencies think the current model is fit for purpose. The value that many agencies are seen to offer is decreasing, because important services are being automated or commoditised.

The research gathered information from 250 clients, 330 account managers and 125 creatives. Tim and Mario presented their findings in the context of what agencies are looking for from clients, and what clients are looking for from agencies.

What do agencies need from clients?
They identified six themes when it came to what agencies needed from clients:

This should be sufficient, specific and timely. Too often there is a tension between meeting deadlines and following a process. By the time the agency has received a proper brief, the project is expected to be out of the door. Clients recognise that the seeds of future problems are sown with a poor or late brief.

Here is a fine balance to be struck. Too much prescription and the agency feels constricted, not able to deliver value through creativity. But too much autonomy and the client can get frustrated through feeling that they are coming up against stubbornness.

This refers to the risk appetite for creativity, the dangers of group think and the propensity to dilute ideas down to the lowest common denominator. Agencies want their clients to be open to taking creative risk.

Agencies desire time to develop ideas. A lack of time is the biggest obstacle they face. The thing with great ideas is that they could come along as your first thought or your last. But if you are not afforded time you’ll never know. The agency will often be put under time pressure because the clients are on a deadline themselves.

The sign-off process for the brief and creative is often a source of a frustration for agencies. The research showed that on average agencies do not rate clients highly for brief preparation. 

A particular problem is not getting senior client-side people involved at the start. This means that briefs are given and work done which are then rejected when they are presented up the hierarchy. Getting senior buy-in earlier would save time, money and frustration.

Agencies appreciate working with people with real expertise in the business. The research suggests this did not happen as much as would be liked.

What do clients want from agencies?
We then moved on to the revelations about what clients want from agencies. Handily, these can be wrapped in 6 Cs.

Clients want agencies to understand their world, which is often complex. 

As clients are doing more in-house, they are looking for killer ideas from their agencies. One quote from the research exclaimed: “We are buying ideas not agencies!”. 

This refers to contact with them, the clients, no matter whether big or small (smaller clients sometimes feel neglected). But also with their other agencies. Clients expect their agencies to work together to deliver the best results. 

Without exception, clients feel that agencies can be better at providing coaching. In one example cited, teaching client-side managers how to manage their marketing suppliers. 

The research showed that clients sought effort from agencies to make clients’ lives easier. This included telling the client what they should be doing - seen as crucial to the point of engaging an agency. 

When it comes to charging, above all clients look for accountability. They want to see evidence of a return on investment. A transactional approach to charging was not appreciated. One client quote shared with the room revealed: “Agencies put a cost on everything. One even charged us for the time spent getting to know us. Their behaviour is transactional not behavioural.” 

Client loyalty and how to build better relationships
Before moving on to the panel discussion, our speakers wrapped up their presentation by highlighting the sudden drop off between excellent client satisfaction (and its effect on loyalty/advocacy) and merely good client satisfaction. They found that a slight drop in satisfaction (eight out of ten compared to nine or ten out of ten), led to a drop in loyalty and advocacy rates from about 95% down to the 50%-60% range.

They shared figures that suggested overall, there was a somewhat surprising lack of attachment from clients to their agencies. And digital agencies fared worse than traditional ones.

Tim and Mario concluded that for an agency to win client loyalty they need to demonstrate industry knowledge and empathy. They should show a capacity for big ideas and the benefits of cross fertilisation of ideas. Agencies should be proactive yet realistic, and offer training. It was important to challenge when appropriate, offer value-added account management, show they care and be transparent.

And for the client to maximise value from the agency, they should ensure they understand their creative process. Briefs should be focused. They should share the problem not the solution and create space for responses that take risks. Clients should get stakeholder buy-in to the brief and communicate their annual plan to the agency.

Our panel’s views
We finished the afternoon’s event with a brief panel discussion featuring Hannah Lee of Mytton Williams, Paul Seymour of Bishop Fleming LLP & Dan Hodges of Conscious Solutions. 

The first question they fielded was: what has changed in client/agency relationships in recent years? Paul went first and highlighted that technical competence was no longer sufficient on its own for agencies to add value. Hannah added that tendering had become much tougher - with heightened due diligence, lower procurement budgets and the way creativity is measured during pitching. Dan observed that client expectations have changed as is the way they are managed in an evolving world.

And what were the panel’s thoughts on the research? Hannah was shocked by the apparent lack of emotional attachment from clients to agencies, feeling it was so important to a good relationship. 

A client-side audience member suggested there is less loyalty for the agency who sends a senior person to the pitch before handing over to a junior account manager once the business is won. This was met with agreement by Paul who said that Bishop Fleming had chosen an agency who brought their account manager along to the pitch.

Finally, the panel were each asked to provide one example of best practice in the client/agency relationship. Hannah’s advice was to always “follow a process.” For Paul, it was demonstrating return on investment. And Dan stressed the importance of understanding your own numbers.

Written by Huw Bendon, Managing Director and Founder
On Point Copywriting