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Clients need marketing operational excellence from their agencies now more than ever

Lucinda Peniston-Baines - Observatory International Lucinda Peniston-Baines Co-Founder & Managing Partner, London May 10, 2023

Analysis of over 1,000 priority rankings from marketer stakeholders highlights that clients currently favour marketing Operational excellence from their agencies at the expense of Strategy and Team chemistry. This is symptomatic of a need for increased efficiencies during an economic downturn.

Since 2007 we have kicked off every Agency Search & Selection process with a rigorous focus on the bespoke definition and ranking of marketers’ and procurement’s agency requirements using Alignment Comparator™, our proprietary online tool.

It delivers a criteria ‘priority tree’, individually and collectively across all stakeholders, which we use to screen and rank candidate agencies, weight score sheets and – critically – keep all client stakeholders aligned on a common vision of success throughout the process.

Now containing a bank of well over 1,000 stakeholder rankings across multiple client sectors and agency disciplines, we took a look at how clients’ agency needs have changed over time.

Marketing Agency Selection Criteria

Our clients’ search criteria are generally bucketed into four ‘Macros’ which allows us to create benchmarks and see a clear direction of travel in terms of needs across:

  1. The Team
  2. Strategy
  3. Creative/Deliverables
  4. Operational

Marketing Operational ExcellenceInterestingly, (and reassuringly for Creative agencies), the priority for marketers across the years has remained “Creative/Deliverables”, consistently outweighing all other Macros at 30%.  However, we have seen a significant uplift from 20% to 23% in terms of the priority of Operational requirements since 2019.  For “Operational” think efficient ways of working, technology deployment, on-time and on-budget delivery, as well as a commercial/ROI focus.

This focus is an inevitable consequence of an ongoing squeeze on marketing budgets and drive for efficiency which has been further heightened by the post-Covid shifts in D2C business models and close control of costs by Finance.

Importantly, what does this say about the two Macros that have been deprioritised in Operational’s favour (Strategy and The Team)?

When we see the Strategy Macro deprioritised by Marketers they tell us it reflects a concern that brands have become too reliant on their agencies for this core skill/responsibility of the marketing organisation, abdicating too much responsibility to an external partner which they want to claim back.   To us it underlines that ‘Strategy’ is a broad term and ensuring the marketer/agency roles are clear and complementary in the development and interpretation of consumer insight and creative strategies is vital. Whilst the Marketer should certainly be setting the strategy, the ability of agencies to get deeper into consumer understanding on an emotional level to unlock a creative angle to drive new behaviour is their strength.   And you rarely get enduring great creative without great strategy.

And finally, ‘The Team’.  Much has been written about the importance of relationships and chemistry in the client/agency partnership.  Indeed, our pitch management methodology is designed to incorporate as many touchpoint and relationship building moments as possible.  Rest assured, at the end of the day, a client team will never buy a team or engage with them well in the long-term if they don’t have a great connection with them.


Ultimately all selection criteria are important, and whilst there is currently a definite desire for improved degrees of operational efficiency (something which, perhaps has not been a strong point for many agencies who focus rightly on the output and can be less than optimum operationally), there shouldn’t be an inflexible stance from the Client fraternity in terms of weighting.

Clients must make it clear this is important – but work with your agencies to ensure they understand your expectations rather than over-focusing to the detriment of the other, crucial, deliverables that have the power to deliver even more to your bottom line.


To find out more about our Agency Search and Selection services and how Alignment Comparator™ is used as part of that process please click here.

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