A Special Relationship: Agencies and Clients
Clients rely on agencies and agencies need clients, but the relationships between them aren’t always smooth. How can brands get the most out of their agency partners? And how can agencies win and retain more clients?
By Jonathan Crossfield
After the initial courting ritual of the pitch is out of the way, it takes time, commitment, and plenty of mutual respect for a client-agency relationship to develop from a short-term liaison into an ongoing and satisfying partnership.
This edition of Talking Points is a relationship counseling session of sorts. Both parties come together to reveal what frustrates – and what delights – them about each other.
For this episode, we are grateful to Mark Jones, founder and CEO of Filtered Media, who gracefully loaned us the use of his podcast studio in Sydney. Some edited highlights are reproduced below, but I recommend listening to the episode for the full revealing discussion.
Meet our panel
Talking Points Highlights
Jonathan: In the beginning, there is the pitch. What do you think of the pitching process? Can agencies or clients do better?
Mark: There’s a couple of things wrong with pitching. The first is we don’t get paid for it: How much of your ideas do you give away? And secondly, in many cases, you’re pitching without enough knowledge of what the client’s looking for, or what the budget is, or what the scope of the project is.
You get the sense that they want to keep their cards close to their chest to see what they can get.
Louise: I’ve certainly experienced pitches where the agency turns up with 10 to 15 people that you know you will never see again. It isn’t the team that’s going to be on your business. It’s not the quantity of people or the quantity of ideas. Are you actually going to solve my business problem?
But I take Mark’s point, that if we haven’t told you what our business problem is, it’s very hard for you to put forward how to help me solve it.I've experienced pitches where the agency turns up with 10-15 ppl I’ll never see again, says @LouiseMEyres. Click To Tweet
Andrew: It’s kind of silly, though. We all know what the real business problem is. They need to sell more of whatever they sell. If there are other problems, great. But if you deliver a pitch that’s, “We can actually sell more stuff, get people to pay you more money, more often for whatever it is you sell,” it’s going to be a better pitch.
The other thing is our pitches are way too long. If you limit the time in front of a client, it forces you to be efficient about the things you’re going to pitch. We would only do 25-minute pitch meetings. Even if they wanted to go longer, we always made it sound like we had to go.
When we first started pitching business in 2000, we didn’t have access to the kind of information and insight we can get today. We used to wonder what budget is available to pitch after. Today, we can go online and in two minutes make a pretty good assumption about what they’re spending on Google AdWords and say, “This looks like a budget we could go after.” So, I don’t think we need as many things as we think we need anymore.
Is the risk of pitching from assumptions that the client will say, “No, that’s not what we think our problem is”?
Andrew: Definitely there’s that risk. But that’s a really good conversation to have. Our motto at our agency was “faster to no.” You’re not getting paid to pitch, so we need to get really fast to a no. If we assess the problem wrong, we can get to a really fast no, like, “No, we just want to raise brand awareness.” But, to be honest, that wasn’t the kind of work we wanted to do anyway. We weren’t the right agency for it.Agencies don’t get paid to pitch, so they need to get really fast to a no, says @DrewDavisHere. Click To Tweet
Mark: If you think about Deloitte and big consulting agencies, they go in and sell a model or an approach: “If you work with us, this is how we do it.”
Andrew: Yeah, but we’re not consulting.
Mark: But I think we are. “What’s your business problem?” That’s a consulting question.
Andrew: But we know their business problems. They’re not selling. They want to sell more. Louise, what do you want?
Louise: I always say it’s about how do you make me a better marketer. And that’s a better way of selling more or achieving a connection with our customers greater than my competitors. If you can get to that, I don’t need the consulting component. I need the outcomes.
In recent years, some brands have begun to bring some of the content production in-house. How should agencies adapt?
Andrew: We serve the client. Our job is to help them be more successful than they were yesterday. And if they want to bring in in-house staff to do stuff that used to be our territory, I think it’s our job to help them do it better than they ever could before. But it comes down to an agency being very clear about the services they provide and that they’re good at.
Mark: As an agency boss, over the last two years we’ve intentionally stopped doing certain things. In fact, it’s really powerful in meetings to say, “If you want a media-buying agency, we don’t do it. If you want a website, I can recommend some really great partners.” I think it’s a point of maturity in the agency world to grow through that and then to realize we can’t be all things for people.
Louise: I’ve had experiences in different companies where there was a competitive tension with the agencies. And I think for the client it’s understanding, “What’s our core business?” At Sports Australia, we have graphic design, film, and videography in-house. We have a production studio because we’re about filmmaking and sport, and that’s core business.
Bringing programmatic media buying in-house would make no sense because we’re not skilled at it. We can’t keep up with the technology changes. As the client, can you keep up with the change in technology? Or is it far better to leave that to your media expert and a new partner with them on what you need?
Andrew: Just one final thing. I think the market is going that way, right? To be honest, it’s our fault. Everybody’s preached for 10 years that you have to think like a media company. Now as agencies we’re getting really upset. “Who told you to hire it in-house? Be a media company as long as you outsource to an agency like ours.” There was no asterisk on that. We know this is coming. It’s our job now to envision what it looks like 10 years from now.
Clients often work with a number of agencies, each responsible for a specialized area: social, SEO, the website, whatever. Sometimes, these agencies aren’t in direct contact with each other, placing the marketer at the center of the wheel. Does that change the nature of the marketer’s role?
Louise: Yes, and it’s exhausting for everyone when there’s competitive tension among the groups. But in my experience, particularly over the last five years, agencies have recognized they have to work together. Otherwise, that will be the trigger to again go to pitch, because the client, the brand, the CMO cannot work that way and won’t work that way.
Andrew: Louise, I think it’s a testament to your evolution as a CMO to get your key partners to work together. Because, honestly, I don’t think the agencies have changed. I think there’s still a lot of competition and there’s a lot of turf war. And the only times I’ve seen it being really successful – again, to float your boat a little bit – is when the CMO, the person in the middle of that mess, is very clear that this is only going to work if you guys can work it out.
I’ve been in a relationship with a CMO like that who basically said, “I will pay for you to all be at an offsite without me for a day so you can fight it out, not in front of me, to figure out how you’re going to work together.”
Mark: I was laughing cause the pistols-at-dawn metaphor just came to mind. One of my biggest bugbears about this is the appointment of a master agency. As soon as you appoint a master agency, guess who’s not the master agency? Everybody else, right?
Andrew: Including the CMO.Clients need to respect the specialized voices they bring to the table, says @markhjones. Click To Tweet
Mark: If you want them to play nicely, then don’t put them in categories or teams. Don’t set the table in such a way that somebody is sitting at the top and then doesn’t respect the insights. You need to respect the specialized voices that you bring to the table. If they’re not equal in terms of contributing to the greater whole, then you’re creating a problem.
Andrew: On the same token, though, we need to have respect for those other agencies. I think a little bit of humility goes a long way to realizing that everybody’s doing great work. We just need to figure out how to leverage it best.
Louise: In that 25-minute fast pitch – which almost takes us back to the start – is also the behavior, the humility, the attitude of the people you’re going to be working with. You have to be able to elicit that, feel that, know that in the pitch environment. A phenomenal agency we’re working with now – there is this underlying humility from the founder and creative director down. Think that how you respect everyone at the table is something we have to identify that in that 25 minutes.
These are just some highlights. Listen to the episode to hear the full discussion.