Laying the foundations for a solid client-agency relationship by setting the ground rules early
In an increasingly competitive world in which marketing agencies are prolific, how best should they retain clients, and how can a relationship between client and agency be set up in the first place to ensure longevity? Two academics at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) are researching this relationship with a view to advising both parties how to lay solid foundations from the start.
For the last four years, Professor Tim Hughes and Dr Mario Vafeas have endeavoured to find out what makes a successful and long-lasting relationship between agencies (creative and digital), and their clients (usually marketers).
Beginning in 2013, their research project initially involved interviewing 25 people on both sides of existing business relationships, to ascertain what their common issues were. Since then, the researchers have also used a combination of one-to-one interviews, focus groups, workshops and survey questionnaires to gather more data from clients and agency account managers.
The results reveal some of the typical challenges both sides face. “You tend to find that agencies have common complaints about their clients, and vice versa,” says Vafeas. “However things are not getting better and in fact are getting worse,” he adds.
The first challenge that has emerged from the research is the power imbalance between both sides. The client controls the purse strings and, because the agency is trying to hold on to the account, their creatives may not always tell them what needs to be said through fear of negatively affecting the relationship.
To counter this imbalance, one of the first things for agencies to think about is whether they are compatible with the company commissioning them, explains Vafeas. “Working with clients where there is a good fit helps the subsequent relationship,” he says.
Establishing a modus operandi on how the two will interact from the beginning is also extremely important. “Explaining to the client at the outset that they don’t intend to impose their way of working on them, but instead want them to get the best possible work out of the agency is key,” says Vafeas. “That investment needs to be made upfront,” he adds, suggesting this is more important than a detailed contract, which can sometimes be off-putting for both parties.
Says Hughes: “A lot of it is about agencies understanding what clients want, and clients understanding what they need to do to get the best out of agencies.” He adds: “This is very much a co-creative process.”
It is also vital that agencies fully understand the clients’ business and that they do not tell them what they already know, say the researchers. “Making sure the creative output is exceptional is key, as many clients can get work done in-house, so if they go to an agency they want something that stands out,” says Vafeas.
Hughes and Vafeas have also observed that there is sometimes a disconnect in the way the two parties want to communicate. They have noticed that agency staff are invariably aged under 30 while brand managers are often in their 50s. The former tend to prefer email, according to the academics, while the latter prefer direct contact. “In the past, a face-to-face interaction was fundamental to building a relationship, but we are now finding this doesn’t happen so much anymore,” says Vafeas. Despite occasional geographical constraints, agencies might therefore consider a more personal approach, he suggests, in order to nurture a stronger relationship.
With a view to sharing their findings and helping practitioners, Vafeas and Hughes work with business networks such as Bristol Media and the Chartered Institute of Marketing, hosting workshops to share results and asking participants to talk about implications for their businesses. They also host seminars, including with the Design Business Association in London. They also organise workshops with individual agencies.
Finally, their findings have also led the academics to incorporate sessions on how to optimise business relationships into the University’s Business and Management degree, as they see this as a vital skill for graduates.