There was a time, not long ago, when event and experiential marketers were simply order takers. A brand would call the agency, or submit a RFP, and the agency would respond with creative, renderings, process and pricing that met the client’s request. If the agency had the lowest price, or the coolest creative, or had the most relevant case studies, or met each specification perfectly, the agency would be hired for the project. If they did a good job, they might be invited back to another RFP or do another project with that brand.
We’ve seen the pendulum swing from project-based work, to retained relationships and back to projects again. This is not an accident. Certainly, increased competition and the rise and evolution of procurement has played a role, however, I believe there is something more at play here. In a word, it’s complacency. Agencies are not innovating, delivering value beyond the ask, or building deep, meaningful relationships with their clients. As a result of this, the gap created is filled by the promise of another agency, who at the time appears hungrier, and is promising the world to a complacent client.
This is expensive on both sides of the equation. Brands lose out because they need to invest in bringing a new agency up to speed before they deliver the value they were promised, which seems to coincide with the agency’s peak and performance plateau leading to the next agency cycle. Agencies lose out because the need to pursue yet another client to replace the brand they lost due to under-servicing — which is far more expensive than keeping the business in the first place.
In the past, the role of an Account Director was to manage the relationship with the client, handle financial matters, and ensure the wheels stayed on the bus from design to execution back of house. The Account Director’s greatest value was managing expectations between client and agency, occasionally yelling at their team, or talking the client off the ledge when something went awry.
Today, client services is so much more than that. On one side of the equation, the Account Director needs to be a strategic consultant – adding demonstrable value to the client at every turn. Relationship management has evolved into driving partnerships. They need to be experts in the client’s business, be the voice of the target audience, the ambassador of the agency, be organizationally savvy, and prove that “sell” is not a four letter world when it means true value to the client. On the other side of the equation, Account Directors must be the voice of the client, drive the strategic and creative process, hold production accountable, and fight for what is right with agency management each and every day. Not to mention, managing the process, financials and driving agency growth along the way. If a client / agency relationship is not growing, it’s dying.
Here are five thoughts and ideas for building and growing world-class partnerships.
- Change your alignment. As a Client Services professional, your job is not to “service” the account. It’s to get the client promoted. Understand their personal goals, challenges, and opportunities, and use this understanding to help them succeed.
- Build a partnership. Too many agencies fall into the trap of thinking a relationship with a brand is predicated upon a single contact. Most enterprises are built upon the talents of thousands of individuals. If you are doing your job as described in point #1, you are making your client look good, and in turn, building relationships higher in the organizational structure. Take a 3×3 approach, and understand who the three people above and beside each client is. Build a plan to create those relationships. Repeat. Your relationship map should grow exponentially in the course of a year. Additionally, everyone who touches the clients’ business from executives to administrative support should be known by the client. Make sure everyone has a role and a contact they are responsible for building a relationship with.
- Know your client’s business. The Bedford Group’s whitepaper, “Client/Agency Relationship Sustainability” states one of the nine reasons clients quit is lack of interest or understanding of the client’s business. Read their annual reports and financial statements. Study their industry. Observe what their competition is doing. Know the dynamics of their business and market.
- Add strategic value. The highest valued element an agency can provide to their client according to “The State of the Agency-Client Relationship” by SoDA, is Strategic Leadership. If you understand their business, you can proactively come up with ideas that add value to your client and relationship far better than the vacuum cleaner salesperson’s approach (we’ve got these vacuums, wanna buy one?). In some cases, it even sparks growth in agency services or offerings, and allows you to sell something different. Taking a problem solving or opportunity exploiting approach allows for true innovation. Sometimes simply sharing perspectives on things that are successful in other industries or marketing disciplines creates value.
- Be accountable. According to Forbes, when asked what recent changes in marketing influenced them the most, 55% of clients pointed to growing demands for “accountability” as the main factor, with increased scrutiny of results by the CEO and the board. Yet accountability is their main area of frustration with agencies — 71% point to it as the area that agencies need to improve most. Ensure all work the agency delivers on behalf of a client has a clear view to what success looks like. Create agreed-upon measurable objectives and KPIs and own the responsibility of delivering against these. Also, have regular (quarterly) agency reviews which are as much about measuring the relationship, as they are about measuring the performance of the work. Have metrics in place that hold both the client and the agency accountable for the relationship, with clear rules of engagement at the beginning of the process, and specific action plans to mitigate challenges and repeat / amplify best practices.
There’s a start. Of course there are many other elements to professional client service, but evolving from order-taker to trusted-advisor will help create, build, grow and retain client agency relationships, and create sustainable value for both.