OPINION: Growing up, advertising had always been the love of my life – the dress sense, spring in their steps, intelligently deciphering brands, you would almost never expect the astuteness in brand communication spewing out the mouth of these sets of ‘misfits’ or ‘nonconformists’ as they are fondly regarded. Finding a crew padding business transforming ideas, blending a strong cocktail of insight, strategy and persuading unsuspecting consumers to desire a product or a service through their creations – this career excited me.
In recent times, a glance at the current communications landscape suggests a stiffness in the world of advertising – a vast mismatch between what clients’ expectations are versus what is served by agencies. This in-evidently breeds distrust, and the questioning of creative competence.
Yet clients’ problems are much more sophisticated than this as problems are increasingly focused on what new technology and evolving consumer behaviours mean to their businesses. Automobile companies are worried about what electric cars and apps like Uber could mean for the long-term business of car ownership. Supermarket chains are sucked into offering delivery of groceries despite history showing that profits are elusive. Over-the-top message companies like WhatsApp are undermining mobile operators’ ability to make money from texts, but also reducing their role to dumb data pipes. Retailers face threats from online shopping and showrooming, and media owners face disappearing revenues as attention moves online. It’s no wonder today’s client demands more than creative designs but almost always catechize marketing solutions presented by the agency.
Most ad agencies have avoided the analytics business. Instead, they’re interested in creativity and enamoured with winning awards. Agencies continue to cling to the notion that clients want creativity and service, but what (clients) really want is shareholder value. Creativity still matters, but unless you can anchor the discussion in measurable data and results, your creative idea is worth nothing. To survive and remain relevant in the future, agencies must become Agencies of Return. To do that, you have to be prepared to measure everything you do, and take an honest look at your own results.
How did this happen? How did our darling Mad Men go from rolling in it to barely holding on? For far too long, advertising agencies have produced great client service execs in the business with great market intelligence, consumer insights and trend analysis. Some clients go as far as poaching these execs from agencies simply for sheer understanding of their business. But in recent times, you have more ‘yes men’ posing as client service execs smothering the business, creating an undulating effect of skepticism within client and agency.
Creating more yes men
Agencies are quickly building out (or acquiring) the traditional and digital capabilities needed to tackle every client need – except the most important one: Serving the client better than anyone else, only a few do this exceptionally well. Apart from brand managers and marketing managers, client service execs are brand ‘doctors’ who confer marketing solutions to ‘sick’ brands in need – based on tested market intelligence. You hardly ever find a patient argue about a doctor’s diagnosis and treatment for a disease, why is that? Patients trust doctors simply for their display of knowledge. When this is lacking, clients begin questioning knowledge depth and agency competence based on their representation (client service).
These days some client service execs look unmindful in board meetings, more often than not seem to agree with every marketing solution proposed by the client, contributing little or nothing to propositions. Market intelligence is vague; competitive industry information is abstruse which gravitates into a shift in relationship between clients and agencies from partners to master – servant. One of the causes the founding fathers of advertising fought against was to foster better business relationship between agencies and clients. Client service is the real differentiator, chief marketing officers (CMOs) can find creativity, they can’t find client service. Once they find client service, agency churn stops.
The Agency of Record (AOR) still is a valuable relationship at the core of a company’s marketing brigade. CMOs invest substantial time and energy in relationships with their AORs. In return, CMOs expect the AOR to anticipate needs and help reach the company’s primary business objectives. The expectation incorporates having a dedicated client service rep equipped with razor sharp industry information, ready to dispense on-demand marketing solutions. AORs unable to deliver this are quickly replaced.
In today’s business environment, somewhere along the line, the need to maximise profits with minimal investment capital concomitant with a messy agency landscape contributed to the degenerating image credited to client service execs. More often than not, agencies tend to place three accounts or more on one client service exec, expecting top managerial, productive and relationship performance in today’s market. A market that changes complexity and dynamism daily, approaches to marketing problems alternate per day, still, the client service exec receives time crunching requests from pressured clients, who demand up-to-date winning marketing solutions for time sensitive brands / businesses. All these factors make it extremely arduous for top client service execs to function optimally.
When it comes to the advertising business, finding the right balance between giving the client what they want and what they truly need is always a challenge. In other words, trying to avoid being just a ‘yes man’ is often a difficult task for client service to overcome.
The client is always…
The notion that ‘the client is always right’ is not always the best solution, it is usually very often than not a recipe for disaster. Clients are driven by a variety of motivations – pleasing top management, managing tight budgets, increasing profit margins / reaching targets, and producing quality work.
Striking the perfect balance makes the client service executives job one of the toughest in the ad business, as they are on the front lines daily, making real-time critical decisions while managing multiple accounts. Listen, client service is never going to be viewed as the most glamorous part of agency life, but getting it right can be as much of an art as anything your creative team might do. To resist being just a ‘yes man’, apply the following tips, which will help ensure that you build and maintain a solid relationship with your client while delivering excellent client service:
- Be different: Make an effort to not do the norm, what is expected when dealing with your client. Forget being politically correct for a second, as humans when you give the “expected” you tend to always come off as predictable and boring. Always make sure you bring something fresh and new to the table.
- Know your client’s industry, business and brand as well, if not better than they do.
- Enquire about budget (not for the purpose of increasing profit margins for your agency) to understand what is feasible or to plot other creative avenues to generate value for your client at minimal or no cost.
- Always keep the work on strategy.
- Don’t hear, listen.
- Understand why the client wants a deliverable urgently. Never push back unless you fully understand the situation.
- Never be afraid to deliver honest answers and feedback. People who are “yes men” fear the client.
In the end, ultimately, agencies should be held accountable for producing great client service executives by limiting multiple account management responsibilities. Today’s marketplace is evolving rapidly in a fast paced world, with distracted and busy consumers. Market insight is now time bound, it shifts and progresses alongside market forces. Client service executives need proper spells in brands they manage. After all, the success of an agency often lies in the palms of a confident client service rep, not professional yes men – and what they (agency) choose to do with that power is what sets them apart from the rest.
Osobajo Olufemi works in the marketing communications / corporate communication department of an oil and gas company in Nigeria.