How to Foster a Healthier, More Transparent Client/Agency Relationship

October 14, 2019

By Joy Mead

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About a year ago, I retired from the client side at P&G, which had been my AOR for almost 20 years, to begin working here at Blue Chip. With this perspective, I was able to look back and evaluate many of the misconceptions I had while I was “the client.” This led me to a critical insight about creating trust and transparency as the foundation for improving agency and client relationships.

Easier said than done, I know. Especially when I see stats like this from a recent ANA survey of client-side marketers: Less than 30 percent of respondents feel like the current level of trust between agencies and clients is high.

As a client, I managed five different agency relationships, and each held a unique set of priorities and objectives. I quickly realized that what’s at stake makes improving these relationships worthwhile.

Here are five key principles that I have found help to foster healthier, more transparent client-agency relationships:

  1. Score your agency relationship. Clients and agencies benefit greatly from aligning on metrics for success that go beyond “increasing sales.” Beyond sales, what does success look like for the client? Winning an Effie, REGGIE or Cannes Lion? Making the most effective use of the budget allocation to reach a targeted audience? Obviously, agencies and clients have KPIs that measure a program’s success, but most don’t have a scorecard to measure the relationship. This was a big eye-opener. How do we work together on strategy, how innovative are ideas, how is collaboration and communication, etc.? We needed a way to answer those questions, so we implemented an annual scorecard, which allowed us to score our agencies across nearly 20 areas, including creativity, account leadership and strategy. They, too, had the opportunity to grade us as a client. This annual review allowed us to look at the relationship outside of project work and continually improve.
  2. Outside perspectives: What are your business challenges? Trust and transparency transcend the agency brief. Agencies are uniquely poised in that they work within multiple industries, depending on their client roster. A client may need an umbrella concept that spans multiple seasons, but also express frustration with the process of selling in a campaign to key retailers. Agencies, by nature, are multi-tool instruments that can help to solve more issues than just what they’ve been retained for. Client-side marketers should be open with their agency about challenges outside the brief. A good agency partner should always have those challenges in mind, too.
  3. Develop a bulletproof brief. Together. As a client, I needed to produce specific results in order to justify the spend. Generally, however, the campaign got there within reason and the budget was fine. At the agency, I have quickly learned the value of a brief that mandates something clearer, better than, say, “Develop a holiday campaign that will increase sales.” I often wanted to skip the brief all together or rattle off information on the phone or by email. In fact, I thought I provided clear direction on briefs. Not so. Over half (58 percent) of client-side marketers believe they provide clear assignment briefings to agencies, and just over a quarter (27 percent) of agencies agree.
  4. Give the agency time to be awesome. When I was the client, I may not have always given our agency the time they needed to do great work. I would request what I thought was a simple option and couldn’t understand why it would take two, five or 10 days to create what I needed yesterday. I had no concept of what went into an endcap display or a multi-channel campaign. Now that I do, I think it’s important for clients to give agencies realistic expectations of good, better and best deliverables and set timelines based on those deliverables. There are real, quality implications for each.
  5. Be honest about the budget. As a client, I never wanted to share the budget. My mindset was that any figure I was to give the agency would automatically become the budget, set in stone. I would ask the agency to develop the plan and come back to me with a cost estimate. On the agency side, however, I understand the confusion and chaos that approach causes. Expectations are rarely met, and rework is practically guaranteed. Being honest upfront will lead to realistic strategy, tactics and execution. It is easier to layer on than to peel back work that has already been invested in and will never see the light of day.

While these five tips are not a panacea for eliminating the murk that is endemic within our industry, they are what we would call a good start. Further, much like our own human, personal relationships, we know that where there is greater transparency and trust, there are stronger, healthier ties.

Joy Mead is EVP and general manager at Blue Chip.


The views and opinions expressed in Marketing Maestros are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the ANA or imply endorsement from the ANA.


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