Agency-client communication sucks. Here’s how to change it

Agency-client communication sucks. Here’s how to change it

The most pressing communication problem in advertising isn’t the distracted, fragmented audiences we’re chasing. It’s the increasingly fractured, even adversarial, communication between agencies and clients, which limits creativity, impact and profit by undermining trust.

How do we fix it?

We asked 10 agency and brand leaders to address the series of pledges their peers created at the Marketers’ Manifesto Summit in Cannes, which we hosted with Worldwide Partners (WPI) – a global network of over 70 independent agencies. 

Here’s what they had to say:

Define success in precise termsBrands and agencies get off on the wrong footing when they fail to define what success looks like. Brands need to be transparent about what success means to them, and agencies must be clear about what the delivery of that looks like.

“Only by defining what success looks like, and discussing it, can either party truly yield what ‘great looks like’,” says Dan Green, VP of EMEA marketing at Activision Blizzard. “Without this conversation, teams can sometimes chase their tails trying to second guess each other.”

The leaders we spoke to agreed that the most critical communication is the one many avoid – setting elements of accountability such as budget and timeline.

“We all get excited about a creative idea or a concept,” says Stephen Brown, CEO at Fuse Create. “But when it gets down into the detail around budget, you can see people shut down immediately by withholding information, or being suspicious. That's the sign of an unhealthy relationship versus a good one. We have to talk openly about money and timelines to solve them together.”

Rachel McQueen, SVP of marketing and collector experience at Air Miles, says communication is an important sign of organisational health. “Some of the friction that happens between a brand and an agency partner can be indicative of some broken culture within the brand itself,” she says. “How much transparency is happening within the brand around KPIs, budgets, and strategy?”

Share data – all of itAgencies and clients need to operate from the same data, from goals to insights to measurement. 

“Not sharing KPIs is like ten-pin bowling in the dark,” says George Roberts, client services director at agency Five by Five. “You can hear the pins go down but you have no idea how many you have actually knocked over! I not only think it would improve communication but also collaboration, transparency, creativity, and trust.”

Juice Pharma CEO Forrest King goes so far as to say secrecy around results breeds suspicion. “Whether the news is good or bad, a good agency partner will want to know, and seek to learn and do even better work for the client,” he says. “Our biggest market successes always come out of open-book relationships that allow for iterative improvements.”

McQueen says sharing more internal data is key to getting greater work from agency agencies. “If you truly are looking for a partnership, make sure that the agency has as much information about your business as possible,” she says. “So that the ideas coming back are informed, they're data-driven, and it is really tapping into the insight that you have as an organisation.”

The key to keeping talent“It’s in no one’s interest to see a creative industry losing talents,” says Antoine David, CEO and co-founder of Rosbeef! “I believe it’s our responsibility on both sides as senior managers to talk openly about things and to impose improvements.” 

If the agency-client relationship continues to cause frustrations and friction, the best talent will look elsewhere. The Marketing Manifesto is a way to set baselines for improvement. 

“It’s like a seed that has been planted and has to be watered constantly,” says Vitor Barros, CEO of Propeg. “Relationships won’t change overnight but reflections like the Marketing Manifesto make us think about how to be better as agencies and as clients. The more these discussions happen, the better off the industry will be.”

We took some of the Marketing Manifesto pledges and asked for the thoughts of global agency leaders Pledge: Collapse the space between the dream and the realityHave senior stakeholders from brand and agency present at the key moments throughout the creative process. Jean Freeman, owner & CEO, Zambezi: “It would be inefficient to have everyone in every meeting at every point. But there are certainly ways to define senior leadership presence and those can be formulated as part of relationship development. Early sell-in is a great example. Everyone’s goal is to create the best work, so it’s up to the agency to figure out what is the best sell-in process, what is the best review process, and work with each client individually to determine those processes.” Pledge: Create an understanding of DE&I goals upfrontEnsure there is a mutual agreement to have diversity across the whole team and hold each other accountable. Eoin Rodgers, managing partner, TMW: “As an industry, we still have a way to go to redress an historic lack of diversity and inclusion, so it should definitely be part of plans – as it is at TMW. Especially in today’s talent market, establishing diversity and representation in teams can take time. While goals and intentions are great, we need to support and hold each other accountable in achieving those goals, however long-term. It is also important that leadership teams help to drive these ambitions through the business.” Pledge: The agency and partnerships are briefed simultaneously ahead of pitchesThe partnership should frame the type of agency the client wants to work with – and this should be outlined at the same time as the brief. Cairo Marsh, founder & managing partner, Relativ: “There should be more open conversations before pitch-work begins. Agencies sometimes engage even when they question the fit, because we want clients, and we hope we can change them later. And clients sometimes engage when they question the fit because they want to see a range of ideas. But it’s like any other relationship: it doesn’t make sense to start a relationship and think you are going to change the other person, so honesty is needed right from the start.”

Many thanks to everyone who took part in our interviews: Vitor Barros, Propeg; Stephen Brown, Fuse Create; Antoine David, Rosbeef!; Jean Freeman, Zambezi; Dan Green, Activision Blizzard; Forrest King, Juice Pharma; Cairo Marsh, Relativ; Rachel McQueen, Air Miles; George Roberts, Five by Five; Eoin Rodgers, TMW.

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