What success looks like in the agency-client relationship
by Robin Bonn, Founder, Co:Definery

After what has been a disruptive two and a half years, Robin reveals what good agency-client relationships look like in an uncertain world.

19th July 2022 Read time: 5 minutes Watch time: 40 minutes

When agencies and clients work well together, the result is a great marketing campaign. However, It would be fair to say that the last two and a half years brought a lot of change to this relationship. Robin Bonn, founder of Co:definery, a specialist management consultancy for agencies, believes the pandemic accelerated many of the already pre-existing challenges that the agency/client relationship experienced.

Rob joined the What’s Possible Community sessions to discuss what success looks like in the agency/client relationship in this uncertain, post-pandemic world.

With 20 years of experience in growth roles, from start-ups to global networks, as well as independents, Rob is well positioned to have a big-picture view of the industry. In his agency career, he has led winning pitches for the likes of Skype, Eurostar, Spotify, P&G, Microsoft, Facebook and Ford, to name a few. He is also a columnist for Marketing Week.

Relationships tested

In Robin’s view, the traditional methods of fostering good relationships with a client was constantly changing pre-pandemic anyways. What remains true for agencies is that the ideal relationship is one where they act as a trusted business partner to the company. During the first lockdown, however, Rob recognised that clients were asking more from their agency partners than ever before.

They asked agencies to jump higher, more often, and quicker! Agencies had to deal with that. I think that’s deepened the distance between a lot of agencies and the trusted advisor role they would ideally maintain with their client,” Rob said.

Along with the pandemic came a trend of flexible and hybrid working, which has persisted in both the agency and client worlds. This has led to new ways of working and relationship-building from afar. Rob says now is the time for renewed mutual respect and clarity between agencies and clients in what seems to be a new normal. Being client-centric is massively important.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

On certain occasions, the agency/client relationship can be a rocky road; mutual respect is seemingly lacking. According to a white paper by Big Black Door, a quarter of clients say agencies are not respectful of them. Moreover, 44% of agencies say a lack of respect for agencies contributed to their worst relationships. Rob has a simple solution to dealing with more complicated relationships: communicate more.

For two groups of people that depend on one another to varying degrees, it’s remarkable how much more headroom there is to be better and to work more collaboratively. Particularly given that we’re all in the communication industry, we’re not particularly great at it in that dynamic,” Rob said.

Clients don’t realise how effective their agencies could be, and agencies don’t recognise how happy and profitable they would be if there was a more meaningful, peer-to-peer conversation between them.”

Respect, however, is a two-way road. Rob comments that the balance of service and civility is thrown off-kilter by tense relationships. Agencies dealing with unnecessarily tough clients are starting to distance themselves and sometimes end their association with the client altogether.

Rob says agencies are right to cut ties if the relationship becomes unworkably toxic. He says it costs far more in terms of money, energy, goodwill and morale of the agency to maintain a dysfunctional relationship. He also believes agency staff would view their leaders favourably if they cut off a toxic relationship. 

Developing the next generation

To have successful agency-client relationships, there need to be competent, intelligent marketers working together. Younger marketers working for agencies need a clear path to career development. Agencies should help equip them with the right skills to thrive in the industry. Rob is a proponent of straightening out an agency and taking it on the shortest course from good to great so that client relationships are as smooth as can be.

He says that after the pandemic, young people entering the agency industry need a different kind of support from leaders.

If you’re running an agency now, there’s more stuff on your plate than you’ve ever had on your plate. DEI, hybrid working, the continued fragmentation of the industry, and you’ve got new channels emerging,” Rob said.

With so many mounting challenges for leaders, developing the next generation of client-facing, fully-developed agency staff while juggling everything an agency deals with at any given moment can stifle development.

We have to do more to get the right, smart people attracted to the industry, and I think there is loads more work to be done. We have to be smarter with apportioning funds and time and headspace to develop talent once they’re in the building,” Rob concluded.

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