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Agency relations in the time of Covid 19

How should advertisers engage with their agencies at a time of reduced spend and restricted communications channels? 

The world has shifted on its axis.  At a personal level, there is massive disruption to day-to-day activity either through illness, working from home or school closures combined with all the complexities of living through a lockdown.

In a work context, some brands and businesses are experiencing major downturns in demand, others almost unmanageable upturns. Regardless of your specific business context, however, strong client-agency relationships are essential at the best of times and will prove to be vital during this worst of times.

We believe that it’s still possible to maintain and manage that relationship, while also being brave together during this challenging period.

The key will be adopting seven critical behaviours:

First, you need to communicate more regularly – let the agencies know what’s happening in your business, how your priorities shifted and what are you being asked to do. By knowing and understanding your changing briefs and KPIs they will be better placed to help you and feel much more a part of your work community.

Secondly, you need to be a true partner – as a company, your first role is to best protect your employees and ensure their safety in the workplace. As a partner, you can also play a protective role to play with your agencies and suppliers. Make sure people who are working for you are not struggling. This will guarantee that the best ones will still be working for you when the crisis is over. This might include confirming to your agency partners which jobs are moving forward, which jobs are postponed or put on hold and accelerating financial processes to ease cashflow management. Agencies will remember and respect you for this.

Thirdly, you need to use the resources you have available – although much of your work may have switched to project-based tasks, you are likely to still have a number of key personnel on retainer.  In particular, strategists at your media, creative and digital agencies should be able to give you valuable insight about what others are doing and help you plan your way out of the crisis. Get the best minds working collaboratively with you to help solve whatever specific problems you face.

Fourthly, keep as much of your normal monitoring in place as you can – motivating teams whilst working from home and coping with changing plans makes it difficult to maintain a high level of collaborative agency/client relationship. Keeping the momentum of the relationship through agency assessment, scope of work monitoring and regular feedback is important. On-going measurement and performance monitoring through periodic reviews is a way to keep your agency motivated so as to concentrate efforts towards the moment normality returns.

Fifthly, you need to continue the momentum of pitches – some companies may be mid-pitch and be tempted to shut down the process.  However, agency investment in the pitch process is considerable and shutting down the process will result in wasted expenditure by the agency. With good planning and facilitation, it is possible to continue the pitch process, albeit not face-to-face.  Although the immediate scope of work may change, you will have secured a partner, who is highly motivated and poised to start work for you at the right moment.

Sixthly, you need to think about what you measure – the KPIs set at the start of the year will probably not be appropriate in the current context. For Q2 and Q3 think about different criteria to feed into performance reviews and payment-by-result. For example, how has the agency stepped up to help you through this crisis? How agile were they in responding and adapting their plans?  What additional value-add did they demonstrate to support your business? How did they demonstrate true partnership?  All these questions apply both ways – Client on Agency as well as Agency on Client, so think about how you might also be measured against them.


Finally, focus on future opportunities – in the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity. The coronavirus pandemic has an obvious impact on ad spend (many of our clients have cut their media budgets by 30%).  But it is also an opportunity, perhaps in the medium to longer term to accelerate brand transformation: to invest in key strategic projects and drive a significant shift to utility, e-commerce, live-streaming and content management, for example.

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