Why Communication is Important for a Strong Agency-Client Relationship
These days, long-lasting relationships are hard to forge and even harder to maintain.
Especially where money is involved.
Money concerns have been known to put pressure on even the most stable relationships, but when you consider today’s fast-paced environment where new technologies are introduced, new businesses are formed, and new strategies are turned and burned every single day, it should come as no surprise that client and agency engagements have been growing shorter and shorter as the years go by.
In 1984, the standard tenure of a client-agency partnership lasted around 7 years. Today, that number is thought to be less than 3.
In this post, we’ll take a look at how improving communication can help alleviate some of the prevalent struggles between client and agency.
But, in order to unearth solutions to keep clients and their external partners on the same page, we first must understand the intricacies of the agency-client relationship.
What is the “Agency-Client” Relationship?
The agency-client relationship is a way to describe the resulting partnership of how a client and their agency collaborate.
As with most business relationships, the agency-client one is complex and can be easily affected by seeds of doubt and mistrust.
According to a report from eMarketer, a January 2019 survey from Forrester Consulting requested that marketing decision-makers outline their agency relationship as it applies to digital and creative media. There was no majority response, which demonstrates how varied brand-agency arrangements are in today’s business landscape.
However, according to September 2018 research from Cowen and Company, most brands outsource at least part of their marketing to external players, which means that the development of strong agency-client relationships through transparency, trust, and sound communication is more crucial than ever before.
Overcoming Difficulties with Improved Communication
Despite the difficulties facing the agency-client relationship, many of these challenges can be assuaged through — you guessed it.
This is Why a Plan for Communication is Necessary
In 2015, the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) found that 74% of clients who work with agencies believe that their agency partnership plays an essential part in driving success, and rely heavily on these relationships to help them achieve their business goals.
And for many agencies, long-term client engagements are equivalently important.
The agency business model does not work if the agency cannot continuously maintain a substantial list of positive client relationships.
As anyone in business knows, the cost of acquiring a new customer (or in this case, client), is usually far greater than the cost of retaining the ones you already have.
And not only do agencies rely on the revenue generated from their client accounts, being able to prove their value to new potential clients through case studies, testimonials, and referrals is nearly impossible with a high rate of client turnover.
Yet, with all the energy dedicated to building great teams, vetting the right technologies, and going above and beyond to provide great service, most agencies fail at providing their clients with a detailed communication plan to make sure that both parties are establishing healthy habits from the get-go.
Common Communication Problems
Unfortunately, many firms will either under-communicate or over-communicate.
With too little communication, as a client you might feel uncomfortable — like you’ve lost control because you haven’t been kept in the loop. And when your agency communicates too much, this might leave you confused and overwhelmed — especially if they are sharing details that you don’t really need to know.
On the flip side, clients who think they are speaking their mind freely are often not perceived by their agency partners as doing so.
On top of that, it is often challenging for clients to express their needs using the proper channels, which causes the agency to have a hard time meeting the demands of their clients. And, as we already know, clients don’t always have the bandwidth or company structure to properly manage each of their agency partnerships, which can apply even more pressure and cause the relationship to suffer.
Since poor communication leads to mistrust, dissatisfaction, and ultimately, failure, clients and their agencies must focus on setting boundaries and expectations for communication upfront so that the agency-client relationship can grow and thrive.
Avoid Poor Communication with These 3 Ideas
1. Create a Communication Plan
An air-tight plan for how you and your agency will communicate is indispensable to upholding this type business relationship.
Typically, this is called a communication plan.
If the agency you are working with does not provide this type of resource, bring it up with them and work together to create an agreement that details the channels, processes, and preferred cadence for communication.
Inside the plan, define how, who, when, and how often you will communicate about your campaigns and projects.
And if you are working with more than one agency, make sure to include each partner-stakeholder in the agreement.
That way, if there is ever a hiccup, an unclear situation, or a campaign emergency, everyone is on board and aligned with the steps that must be taken, the stakeholders who need to be looped in, and the channels where these types of communications can live.
It is also wise to define a process for conflict management should any actions lead to a disagreement. If both parties can agree to connect and work through any issues using the process outlined in the communication plan, conflict can be resolved more quickly, and trust can be restored.
Be sure to brief all internal team members who will be interacting with any agency partners on the communication plan so that both teams can integrate without friction.
Not only will having this plan help you build solid foundations with all of your external vendors, it will help you manage them more effectively which will open the door for increased collaboration and relationship satisfaction.
2. Invite Your Partners to Work On-Site More Often
In the case of brands and their partners, absence does not make the heart grow fonder.
One way to combat communication failure is to invite your agency partners to work with you on-site. This allows you to quickly move projects forward as you will be working side by side more often than in a traditional agency setting.
Real-time collaboration allows both parties to renew their sense of human connection while at the same time re-aligning on projects, strategy, goals, timelines, and expectations.
While this strategy is still relatively uncommon, it is not unheard of.
According to eMarketer, “Omnicom Media Group offers clients on-premise ‘staff augmentation,’ according to Scott Hagedorn, CEO. Essentially, agency employees don’t physically work at Omnicom headquarters. Instead, the work is done on-site at the brand three to four days a week, with the agency expert and the client sitting side by side…Speed is a major benefit, as interactions between the agency and client can happen in real time.”
Of course, working on-site might not be an option for all agencies as budget and time constraints may interfere with this type of engagement.
If that’s the case, consider working out regular in-person (or video if your agencies are not local) touch-base meetings as well as working sessions so that you and your partners can benefit from the advantages of real-time collaboration.
3. Defining and Aligning on Tricky, Subjective Concepts
Semantics can play a part in muddying communication.
When one party believes something means one thing, and the other thinks it means something else, it is easy for breakdowns to happen.
According to an article from Fast Company, one vital area where agencies and their client counterparts seemed to disagree is the concept of what it means to be “creative.”
“Two thirds of agencies and clients agree we don’t have a shared definition of creativity… We need to figure out what creativity looks like in each relationship because each situation is judged by different standards.”
But “creativity” is not the only word that can cause an upset.
Other subjective ideas like “innovation” have been known to place a wedge between collaborators when the standard for judgement has been left undefined.
As part of your communication strategy, think about these tricky open-ended words that get thrown around a lot and come to a consensus on what each of them means within the confines of your partnership.
Eliminating all doubt about what something might mean will effectively remove the miscommunications and misconceptions that can play a part in fracturing the agency-client relationship.
Originally published on the Hearst Bay Area blog. Click here to read the full version.