The relationship between media agencies and their clients isn’t always easy. There’s no question money is an issue, with agencies being pressured to perform more for less remuneration, leading to a lack of capacity. As for skills development and mentorship, that’s another sore point that can fester. Seniors are too busy managing clients and the business, while juniors are promoted too soon, leading clients to complain that they’re not getting the experienced and analytical service they need.
It’s no wonder, then, that the relationship between client and agency is taking pressure, yet quite often, clients – and agencies – find it difficult to call it quits. Dawn Rowlands, CEO of Aegis Media in sub-Saharan Africa, gives her view on the client /agency relationship, it’s pressure points and how to keep it flourishing, even in these difficult times.But, she warns, at its heart the relationship is based on business. Like internationally renowned marketer and author, Edward DiMingo, she believes, “At the bottom line, it’s a hard-headed, results-oriented marriage intended to produce specific, measurable results”.
What factors lead to a client wanting to leave an agency?
Chemistry. Is my agency leading me? Value to my business. Insight into my consumer
How often does cost play a role in the decision?
The world is driven by perceived value. Clients like Coca-Cola and P&G manage this really well globally.
How important are long term relationships in the media agency business?
Long-term relationships don’t always deliver the best results. Innovation and value could fall by the way side. Carat SA has a brilliant case study on this. They worked on the Vodacom business for 15 years and managed to deliver R931-million in value over that period, with the best discount in their final year R175-million. Proof that it is do-able. The length of a relationship is irrelevant if you continually lead your client and understand their consumer and business challenges. Align your KPIs.
Is it an emotionally difficult decision?
Of course it is difficult but transparency around the issues really helps everyone involved. Any business decision that drags on creates further negativity and is really counterproductive.
How often do agencies fire clients?
More regularly than you would think, and potentially not as publically as a client would fire an agency. Social Media however does not prevent disgruntled staff from having their say publically, which could lead to reputational damage for both the agency and the client.
What is the longest time you’ve kept a client?
Vodacom was with Carat for 15 years before being globally realigned in 2010. Many clients have worked with me for over 15 years as I have started businesses or offered different services.
Does that relationship, the long-term relationship, have its own set of issues?
The length of the relationship is irrelevant to the success of the partnership. An ongoing transparent and insightful relationship is the key to success.
What key factors should come into play before a client makes the decision to leave?
Most clients site a lack of innovation, a lack of insight and a true understanding of their business. The conversation then usually moves onto to lack of perceived value. The most successful marketers understand that an agency can deliver value if rewarded fairly. Agencies that align on clients KPI’s and share some risk with their client will be motivated to deliver value. Add a well-constructed performance bonus to mix, and you’ll manage your relationship effectively.
The new media procurement model, which we are already driving in South Africa and across Africa, is based on ‘cost per acquisition’. We are moving into a future focused on performance media, where data analytics and trading performance will dominate the landscape. New revenue and agency models at Aegis are already changing to manage this. Digital media is the most measured and compliant media in Africa. Media and consumer insight is poor across sub-Saharan Africa. Mobile and other digital media knock this dilemma on its head.
What would you look for in a new agency?
Having only ever worked in agencies and media owners, both in SA and aboard, I can only comment on pitch processes I have seen over the last 20 years. So here goes. Firstly I do not think that clients spend enough time on this.
Secondly the process is managed a bit like that old programme Blind Date or the recent one I have seen where potential suitors sit in a trailer waiting to be called out, asked on a second date or axed. What you see is the person making the decisions, who are by no means perfect themselves, becoming more and more conceited as the programme continues. They also become clearer and clearer about what they don’t want and that is a great place to start.
I would look at my current relationship from two points of view: what I want from the relationship and what could I do as a client to enhance the performance of the agency. An ex boss of mine once said, “If only this business was less about managing personalities!” I would take a good look at the abilities of my marketing team versus the KPIs we have.
I would spend time meeting potential agencies outside of a pitch process to access how they would react to a crisis in my business.
Are they motivated to really walk the wire for me? Would they rally around my challenges? Can we have a frank discussion regularly around performance on both sides? Would I have access to smart people, who are not afraid to challenge me? Do they really understand how my consumers communicate and make purchase decisions? Can they be transparent about their revenue models? Do they have a plan for their own future that gives me a sense of comfort that we are heading in the same direction?
It seems to me that social media can get an agency fired… tweeting without thinking, such as the recent Durex mess. GM firing Big Fuel. Is this something to watch?
The fact is that 80% of communication around any brand lives in the public space i.e. the marketing / communications department is not in control of it. Everyone’s employees are consumers and consumers are now publishers. All our staff have confidentially clauses in their contracts and this subject is regularly discussed internally to ensure that staff act responsibly. If a negative situation occurs in social media the best way to handle it is with positive social campaign management.
A quote by Edward DiMingo for your comment: “The agency/client relationship is the subject of entirely too much mystique. At the bottom line, it’s a hard-headed, results-oriented marriage intended to produce specific, measurable results. Yet little of the marketing literature focuses scrutiny on this thin, human line between success and failure.” Your view?
I cannot agree more. If agencies and clients could transparently set objectives together, we’d all achieve better results. These start with the business objectives and a good business strategy which then leads on to communication objectives and plans. But how do you manage the human line? I have seen staff work with unreasonable and abusive clients; I have seen agencies find it impossible to employ staff to work on a particularly abusive client. Potential recruits would ask for ‘danger pay’ making the business unprofitable eventually.
What in your view are the five deadly sins a agency – or client for that matter – could commit that would result in the end of a relationship?
It is all about leadership. Are we leading clients to help them solve their business problems? We specialize in communicating in an engaging fashion with consumers we really understand. This communication needs to result in Sales, votes or actions. Do we really understand our clients commercial DNA? Today Technology drives innovation and are we clear about how this will change a brand’s life and the consumers? The way brands are built has changed significantly in the last 5 years. Does the agency have the ability to navigate a cleint through this change and “re-invent the way their brand is built?
What are five rules to keep that relationship strong and steady?
Work on it. Always provide positive feedback and handle negativity maturely. Never lose site of the objectives and your strategy. Really listen and find solutions which benefit both parties. Share frustrations and agree to make the required changes on both sides. Be more commercially minded and understand how your client’s financial model works.