THURSDAY 15 FEB 2018 10:51 AM


Agency-client relationships are the bedrock of work in the communications industry. Hassan Butt examines the strategies for coexistence and success to ensure both communities thrive

In the late 19th century, German mycologist, Heinrich Anton de Bary, coined the term ‘symbiosis’ during his inspection of the morphology of moulds, yeasts, and fungi, leading to the establishment of mycology – the scientific study of fungi – as an independent science.

However, looking closely at the formation of lichens, de Bary’s work, together with his contemporaries, established the core argument of ‘existence by association,’ suggesting an unwritten and innate mutualism that persists throughout the animal kingdom. The quintessential image of Egyptian plover birds cleaning the teeth of crocodiles, or African oxpeckers perched on the hides of wildebeests, conjures up pleasant images of natural collaboration.

Similarly, the business environment embodies an ecosystem of coexistence, and the client-agency relationship, which has long been defined by collaboration, and lack thereof, remains a key indicator of its success. Defined through a reciprocal agreement, clients often manifest in-house professionals seeking specialist expertise, and agencies are customarily called in to undertake the work.

Agencies vie for selection through a request for a proposal (commonly known as RFPs), ushering in the pitching process to the agency environment. Yet, client-agency relations are lasting opportunities for businesses to build up experience, learn from mistakes, and form the wider, collaborative experience needed to tackle the complexities of business challenges.

In 2016, distributed technology company, R3, found that the top 40 client-agency relationships lasted an average of 22 years, with the industry average being only 3.5 years. Comparatively, the average tenure for a client-agency relationship in 1984, according to marketing consulting firm, the Bedford Group, was 7.2 years. Companies such as Unilever, GE and Levi’s however, boast agency relationships that date back more than 40 years, with Unilever’s 117-year relationship with MullenLowe seemingly more of a ‘til death do us part’ arrangement.

The Global 40 study also found that by sector, FMCG produces the most amount of client-agency relationships on average, with technology and automotive not far behind. Contrastingly, fashion and luxury remain the industries with the least amount of client-agency partnerships on average. In the advertising sector, as an example, 2016 also saw the Association of National Advertisers in the US investigate reports of malpractice across US media agencies, with client-agency dynamics a key tool in facilitating non-transparency.

From quantity to quality however, successful client-agency relationships have long been dictated by the conditions in which they exist. As communication platforms develop and workforces diversify, the structure of good and bad client-agency dynamics differ from sector to sector. Numerous factors can contribute to the success of collaborative projects, but equally, the more advanced projects become, the more complex things become when the client-agency partnership doesn’t work out.

For Nick Barron, deputy CEO of PR and public affairs firm, MHP Communications, the litany of divisive outlooks towards the client-agency experience exaggerates an ‘us and them’ mentality. “As someone who moved from an in-house role to an agency, I often think it’s a pity that the normal direction of travel in our industry is from agency to in-house. If you’ve never been a client, it’s easy to imagine that their lives consist of sitting at their desks, waiting to issue a new set of demands to their agencies. I talk to former agency colleagues who’ve become clients and they all say, ‘I had no idea what it was like,’” says Barron.

Against the backdrop of division however, successful client-agency relationships can often be a carousel of blurred lines and clear distinctions, all of which remain provisional. “Good agencies combine expert strategic advice and high-quality work with a service ethos. That doesn’t mean doing whatever the client demands, it means understanding where they are coming from, what pressure they are under and what matters most to them. Clients are people – with ideas, passions and ambitions bigger than the set of issues they represent,” adds Barron.

“Clients are people – with ideas, passions and ambitions bigger than the set of issues they represent”

For many, a productive client-agency setup also manifests ongoing opportunities to navigate emerging channels and explore new operating models. Yet as the weight of projects intensify, briefs must incorporate the abundance of ideas that comes with augmented business strategies and agile working methods.

Julia Herd, global vice president of communications at music streaming service, Deezer, says, “Democracy is key. Involving all stakeholders in the decision making process and ensures that there is no bias pre-pitch or external factors which could sway someone’s decision. Who to appoint needs to be based on the pitch itself and not on previous experience with that agency. As a client you also need to be open with your agencies throughout the entire process and treat every agency the same.” Deezer operates in a market dominated by bigger players – one that also greatly values sponsorships and client-agency partnerships – signifying a greater necessity for precise briefs that can offer consumers a more unique and identifiable service. Its integrated relationship with the likes of Facebook, Bose, Sonos and Orange have best illustrated this, leading to the service’s expansion across 187 countries.

“There are a number of different factors that define a good client-agency relationship. Business wise, working towards the same goal and set of objectives and understanding how to get there, what challenges you are likely to face along the way and how to address and overcome those challenges. Transparency, honesty and respect are also key. Without these you’ll never deliver the best,” says Herd.

Equally, for agencies on the other side of the brief, the pressure to deliver on an all-encompassing proposal often dominates the business agenda. As brands become increasingly stringent regarding how they choose to execute agency relations by incentivising agencies on the metrics that matter most to the core brand, agencies are now evaluated on whether they can increase brand awareness, augment clickthroughs and drive traffic, while contributing to overall sales growth.

Herd’s emphasis on transparency follows a professional shift in client-agency strategy widely seen across various sectors. Typified by integrated brainstorming sessions and shared workspaces, the traditional workflow has been altered to ensure that oversight, budgets and content are orchestrated in unison. As tactics vary, the need for greater specialisation from clients often demands agility, precision and patience from agency partners.
In February 2017, Marc Pritchard, global marketing and brand building officer at multinational consumer goods corporation, P&G, gave a speech on the ‘murkiness’ of the media supply chain, calling for more investment for growth and a greater seriousness about transparency. Adopting the Media Rating Council’s standard, P&G aimed to close avenues of pecuniary advantage across client-agency lines.

Two months later, a joint study conducted by the World Federation of Advertisers and marketing consultancy, the Observatory International, found there were high levels of frustration from agency professionals regarding channel-specific briefs. The research interviewed 32 multinational clients across 12 sectors, as well as 46 senior agency employees in global and domestic roles. As many as 44% of clients used a ‘master brief’ that included role-specific requirements for each agency. In addition, 73% claimed to be using ‘single-minded propositions’ when formulating briefs, with 98% of agencies saying briefs were ‘sometimes’ and ‘often’ geared towards specific channels.

For Ian Cassidy, CEO and founder of London-based marketing agency, Share Creative, understanding the lifecycle of client-agency relations can help strip back the layers of administration, etiquette and, at times, red tape. “The first thing that we do, is we try and help the client understand what they want from an agency. The reason they come to an agency, is because they need some sort of skill or service that they can’t get internally or anywhere else. I think a lot of agencies start pushing what they do onto a client, rather than what the client is looking for, which is really a bit of forward-thinking. We’re not opposed to going back to a client and saying, ‘This is what you came to us for, but this is what we feel you need.’ The key is being a trusted advisor, through open and honest lines of communication,” says Cassidy.

Evading such collaborative principles however, can lead to fallouts. Less successful client-agency ties hold their fair share of intricacies, from unhinged strategy to creative intransigence. The example of former British public relations giant, Bell Pottinger, was 2017’s lesson in the dangers of miscalculated client relations. The company nurtured a long history of chequered clientele, from Oscar Pistorius after he was charged with murder, to Syrian first lady, Asma al-Assad. 

Throughout client-agency interactions, responding to changing dynamics is paramount, and yet frequently overlooked. As expectations swell, stumbling blocks soon limit the mileage behind client-agency partnerships, ripples of fragmented relationships can seep into other areas of work, affecting company culture, team morale and further implicating communications strategies.

“A lot of agencies start pushing what they do onto a client, rather than what the client is looking for, which is really forward thinking”

Abbie Wood, client services director at integrated creative agency, Cubo, says, “I actually think friction between a client and agency is good. If you’re totally comfortable and everything is coasting, I’m not sure that you get the best out of each other...The client needs to know everything about their brand, and we need to know everything about how we’re going to market their brand, and I think those two things need to rub along together in a healthy way.”

Finding the perfect fit however, can be a challenge. For many agencies, clients are often brought in through successful interactions and past dealings, and vice versa. Consequently, communications can remain as previously set, often accessible through one main contact and at risk of rigid linearity.

Recognising this, in November 2017 the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) partnered with London-based business consultancy, Ingenuity, to manage and enhance its PRCA Matchmaker service. The service, formerly known as Find a PR Agency, was founded 15 years ago and aids in pairing business owners, procurement professionals, marketers and in-house communications teams with relevant PR and communications support.

Remaining strictly confidential, PRCA Matchmaker works by collecting data and curating appropriate matches using interactive agency profiles, and facilitating the pitching process. “Brands who have sourced help via the Matchmaker service include Vauxhall, WD-40, Orange, and Ladbrokes, to name a few. Since this is a free service for clients to use, brands are obviously delighted with the service. The same can also be said for the PRCA consultancy members who have sourced new clients via the Matchmaker service. Many clients stay with their agencies for some time. For example, Canon has been with Nelson Bostock for more than 10 years,” says Steve Miller, memberships and partnerships director at the PRCA.

Static or single-channel communications no longer fit the bill, and as watchful eyes now tread carefully around reputation management, the parameters of risk-taking in client-agency relationships may be subject to further change. The question of whether companies, and the agencies working closely with them, continue to foster trust as a business focus, will largely determine the future of the client-agency dynamic.

For both sides however, the notion of conflating business agendas to maximum effect can often drown out qualitative efforts to align aspects that matter most. Despite the binding nature of the client-agency setup often determining working conditions, successful outcomes continue to hinge on the altruistic, cooperative and forward-thinking aspects of client-agency relations.

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