In this time of tenuous loyalty and FOMO, agencies must realize that although you may get hired from the top, you most definitely get fired from the bottom. If you are not paying attention to providing excellent service across all levels at the client, be prepared to face a groundswell of discontent that the CMO or CEO may not be able to ignore, no matter how strong you believe the relationship is.
In 1987 the tenure of the average client/agency relationship was 7.2 years. In 2016, the average survivability of relationships is 34 months. This is barely time for an agency, under a traditional model, to move an account into profitability. The nature of the relationships is clearly changing. Retainer business is less the norm and project work requiring greater agility, foresight and modularity is what’s required to hold business. This dynamic will intensify as clients seek partners who can help transform their businesses to meet the gravitational pull of the omniconsumer. There is pressure from clients to deliver more-for-less with greater speed and efficiency across all channels all the time.
On our transformation journey as an industry, and in the face of encroaching competition from big consultancies now meaningfully playing in the agency space, here are five thoughts to help buy some meaningful time in your relationships.
- Invest in relationship tracking. This is key to maintaining a constant feedback loop. Structured, open and honest communication is the key to commercial longevity. If you are still relying on your annual client assessment, you are burying your head and are due for a nasty surprise. We all know agencies that received top scores one year only to be fired the next. Invest in reliable third-party monitoring. The minimum frequency is three times annually, and you need to poll the CEO through to Marketing Assistants. This will ensure actionable, real time feedback that can nip negative hallway chatter in the bud and give you tools to proactively manage relationships.
- Don’t be afraid to lose the business. The worst thing is to show fear in your eyes. Clients buy confidence. They are paying you to know what lies ahead, to have the answers, and to march unafraid with them into the future. You don’t need all the answers all the time. Asked what the future for business was, one of my colleagues recently said “I don’t know what’s next, but I do know that getting ready for what’s next, is what’s next”. This struck me as an honest yet confident way to inspire belief. Show your client you have a sightline on the future that no one else has.
- Have an unpitch strategy. This comes in two parts: a) over-delivery on flawless execution; b) inspire and delight with ideas that address clients’ business problems. There is beauty in a well-oiled machine that delivers the day-to-day flawlessly. This, however, is usually left to junior employees who have yet to see the light. Under-delivery on mundane tasks starts rumblings of discontent in junior client ranks. Worse, by not guarding your flank, you open the door to ‘project work’ for interlopers. The first part of an unpitch strategy is making sure you are delivering beyond expectation on the day-to-day. The second thing is to ensure you are bringing your client insights and ideas that address their broader business issues on a timely and consistent basis. Think of it as repitching their business once a quarter. Diarize the meetings and make them events your client looks forward to. Get them to help design the session. Be viewed as a true business partner, not merely an agency supplier.
- Fewer better people is always the right choice. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world.” Margaret Mead. Nothing inspires people more than being around motivated and insightful colleagues committed to getting a job done. Think about how we perform in new business. This is usually led by our best people, single mindedly dedicated to winning. Why can’t we operate like that as a matter of standard operating procedure? Use this era of transformation to calibrate our talent, and create work teams dedicated to delivering excellence in business partnerships.
- Train your people.
I was recently reminded of the power of training when we hosted our people through negotiation skills training. It required full engagement and active learning, and was immediately applicable to their daily business lives. They were grateful, and felt they had acquired essential skills to survive the ever-changing landscape of client engagement. Training at any level is always the right choice.
The only certain thing is that our world will change dramatically again. Investing in relationships with clients, upskilling people, and incentivizing top performing talent is not only the smart thing to do, it gives us a survival shot when the deck, in these times, seems to be stacked against us.