Sunday, 25 April 2010

Getting the most out of digital agency relationships

(An edited version of this post first appeared on

Aprais is a global business relationship management consultancy.)

For most people working in marketing, the ideal client/ agency relationship is a healthy one, based on mutual respect and perceived equality: i.e. a true partnership. However we all know "all good things must come to an end" and with agency-client relationships, this sometimes happens prematurely.

So what about digital? Well because digital is still relatively new, and fast-changing, the picture is fragmented. And because digital is growing so fast in terms of share of marketing budgets, there seems to be plenty of digital business to go around and Marketing Directors have a wide choice of agency partners to help them plan and implement their digital marketing activity. There is certainly a role for the full-service digital agency, for the specialist digital agency (design and build, search, viral, social media or mobile) and also for the ad agency which has 'strategically embraced digital' and/ or 'placed digital at the heart of its culture' (choose your preferred form of words).

Most digital agencies work on a project basis which sometimes causes them frustrations, not least because this can disincentivise them to think outside the confines of the current brief (likely to be subject to tight time and budget constraints). Moreover, many clients still seem to believe they haven't seen a creative idea until they see a TV idea.
What are the most common reasons digital agencies lose their clients?
  • Overselling: because there are often technical and jargon barriers, digital agencies often ask their clients to "trust us, this will be fantastic." This works once or twice before the CMO is called in by the CFO to discuss ROI (is that enough acronyms?). Indeed I anticipate an imminent backlash from the Boardroom against much current social media activity which may be producing 'engagement' but no attributable sales.
  • Massive error (=catastrophic mistake): rarer than might be expected; most digital agencies are staffed by experienced professionals and have systems in place for checking work which minimises the chance of this sort of thing happening; however, once in a while, the agency CEO (in an unguarded moment) might say the wrong thing to a journalist, or an intern might accidentally be let loose on the Twitter stream or allowed to put a film up on the company YouTube channel......
  • Personality clash (e.g. new Marketing Director): always possible in cases where the new senior client didn't appoint the agency in the first place. Equally, over a period of time people can simply get on each other's nerves. It may be that the agency can shuffle the team, unless the problem is with the Creative Director say, in which case he or she might agree to adopt a lower profile on the account...
  • 'Irredeemable breakdown of the relationship'. ("They wouldn't work with the ad agency; they just don't understand our business" or "They just don't get digital; they kept moving the goalposts; they never really knew what they wanted"...)
In my experience, the most common avoidable reason for client/ agent relationship breakdown is suboptimal communication from both parties, specifically the lack of a formalised mechanism for identifying and addressing problems/ issues while there is still an opportunity to fix them i.e. long before they become terminal. Some of the above is common to all types of agencies' relationships with their clients. Specifically, I suggest that clients might remember that good ideas can come from anywhere, including the digital guys. If you involve them earlier - when the strategy is being formulated - you may get more value out of them.

As for digital agencies; many would benefit from being (a) less obviously thrilled by their own technology, (b) closer to their client's typical customer and (c) more confident to go their clients with demystified, jargon-free business-building initiatives and big multi-channel creative ideas - not just cool techie stuff that works as a bolt-on to the ad campaign. Only then can they expect to be treated as top-table strategic partners. A few digital agencies have already started this process. Along with some of their 'ad' agency fellows, they will make up the top-tier of integrated communications agencies of the future, by which time 'digital' is likely to be about as cutting-edge a term as 'The Information Superhighway', 'CompuServe' or 'Netscape'...


Anonymous said...

Great post Mike. I have worked in those Digital Agencies where everyone is super-cool and wears black and they think they're God's gift to marketing. The clients are too embarrassed to admit they don't understand a word they're saying (long-tail, engagement, silos, multi-platform, cross-channel, behavioural targeting etc. etc.) and then one day the CFO asks what is the ROI and then they fire them. There must be a better way?!

Julian Clayton said...

I think it's tough for digital agencies. Clients are often really unreasonable. They're still 'in bed' with the big ad agency who takes them to Wimbledon and the Test match (yes even these days). The digital guys are accused of being geeks in love with the tech, but also expected to know about (eg) the latest iPad ad platform before Steve Jobs does. I think clients need to trust and listen to their digital agencies more - they would get more out of them, as you rightly say Mike.