If you’re an agency in today’s market place, you’re likely feeling some anxiety about where to mine for new business. In the ever-shifting landscape in which everyone’s trying to get a piece of the ever-shrinking pie, you may even be unsure of who your competition is these days. And you are right to be confused. There are a lot of new players in the agency world, and the way companies are spending their money is changing.
For example, P&G recently announced that they will cut marketing spend by $2 billion over the next five years. That means $1 billion will be cut in media, and about $500 million in agency fees. These budget cuts come during a time when P&G, like many brands, is evaluating their agency relationships and contracts.
While clients are looking for efficiencies and taking services in house, you also have consultancies like Accenture, PwC, IBM and Deloitte adding marketing services to their portfolio. Proving they’re an immediate force to be reckoned with, for the first time ever these four consultancies made Ad Age’s ranking of the 10 largest agency companies in the world, with a combined revenue of $13.2 billion.
All of this change has resulted in slow growth for agencies. In their 2017 Agency Report, Ad Age reported that revenue growth for agencies was at its slowest since 2013.
So as an agency partner, continually trying do more with less, what does it take to succeed in this environment?
From my experience working as an account director at a boutique customer experience agency, I’ve learned that it doesn’t always take a lot of extra time or resources to provide tangible value to the client - and even expand your relationship. It’s really about asking the right questions and being open to hearing the answers, even if they’re difficult to swallow. Here are a few of the key questions I ask my clients to help us both get the most out of our partnership.
1. How will your success on this project be measured?
As agency partners, we are used to asking our clients how they will measure a project’s success, but seldom do we ask them to think about how they will measure their own success. Understanding how the project will be judged is really important, but understanding how your client will be judged is just as important, if not more so.
It’s human nature to want to further your own career and have an engagement reflect positively on you personally. Encouraging your clients to consider how your relationship can benefit them makes you a critical part of their success and can also be a way of encouraging them to take more ownership over the project.
I once had a client who wanted to be famous–she cared about industry recognition and being seen as a brand leader. I had another client who wanted a promotion and our project was going to help him seal–or lose–that deal. Much of the success of both of these projects had to do with the personal stake these people had in the success.
But getting your clients to share in the project’s success (or failure) is easier said than done. It takes vulnerability for someone to share their personal motives for being put on a project, so asking this question and getting a truthful response relies on having built a positive foundational relationship with your client beforehand
You can see how the approach to partnering with the client who wants to be famous differs from the approach you would take with the client who wants the promotion. The foundational elements of delivering high quality work, on brief and on schedule are implied. But creating those lasting, often emotional bonds that demonstrate you understand the bigger picture are a more nuanced but valuable skill
2. Can we meet in person?
No one likes paperwork. It’s boring, monotonous and often doesn’t add tangible value to the work. Beyond the creative brief which outlines the assignment, there isn’t really a need for a bunch of documents to understand the ask and determine if there’s a greater opportunity. So rather than asking for copious documentation, ask for facetime and frequent conversations. Having conversations in person is a much more interactive way to share information and feels like less heavy lifting for the client. You’ll also often get more insightful details this way.
Instead of throwing requests over the fence to the client and hoping for something magical in return, I recommend asking for face time. You can ask questions in person that give you the same information that you might expect in a document, but with the added bonus of building a closer relationship with your client. A face-to-face conversation also gives you the added benefit of hearing the client’s commentary as they explain the ask. Maybe they don’t believe in the project and are really pushing for a different long term objective. Or maybe they championed this work internally but it’s going to be a hard sell to their boss. When you have these face-to-face conversations you can strategize now on how to get the boss on board. All good information to know, and something you could never suss out from a word doc!
3. What problem are you trying to solve?
Instead of asking about the boundaries for the engagement, ask about the opportunities. It’s easy to fall into the trap of receiving a client brief and asking a bunch of questions about how we’ll be limited by time, budget, client resources, agency resources, etc. Instead of going down this road–where all you’re doing is limiting how the agency can add value–focus instead on asking open-ended questions about the opportunity.
For example, I once received a client brief where they wanted banners to promote products during a key selling period. Instead of asking more about when they needed the concepts, how long we had for production, what was the latest possible date to deliver, I focused the conversation on the business problem and presented the idea that there could be more effective solutions to the problem. As a result, we ended up creating a larger campaign engagement that actually did affect business results that quarter.
One of the biggest mistakes agencies make is falling into the trap of doing things the way they've always done them. In today’s shifting landscape it is more important than ever to demonstrate to your clients that you bring real value to them and their businesses, and you’re not just going to “follow directions.” Asking the right questions can help your grow the business and the relationship to ensure you become invaluable to your client's success.