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Marketers and agencies: staying together

The pandemic has disrupted and tested marketer agency relationships. David Sitton, Consultant at The Observatory International, highlights who did what best and how they can continue to improve.

No one would pretend that 2020 was easy. And for marketers and agencies having to work remotely rather than face to face, the challenges were huge.

Inevitably some managed to adapt faster and better than others but analysing all the performance evaluations we conducted throughout 2020, we’ve been able to understand what worked and where each side fell down.

Based on 5,000 responses from global blue-chip brands as well as their agencies – covering multiple disciplines including creative, media and PR – we’ve identified seven key areas that helped hold relationships together and even thrive.

First, motivation was important. One of the most impactful differentiators from the data was the simple but powerful effect of an individual’s energy and drive. Brands that regularly communicated their purpose and proposition – so everyone stayed focused on the same objectives and vision – were likely to be in a better position. Smart marketers also kept motivation high by celebrating successes and recognising the contribution of individuals.

Second, collaboration was critical. This was a positive area for both client and agency teams with 15% of mentions in the client surveys and notably 33% of mentions in the agency surveys. At a time when working closely together to resolve problems and pivot quickly to develop new plans and activities was essential, those who could promote a culture of collaboration and ensure both sides are working towards a common goal did best.

Close collaboration was driven by effective and frequent communication, to ensure alignment on processes, saving time and aggravation down the line. Sharing business and brand strategies and objectives with the agency on a regular basis, helped keep business challenges and needs top of mind.

Third, time management was a serious challenge. Time management also featured in the top five mentions in both sets of surveys with 19% of mentions in the client responses and 14% in the agency responses.

Time management and the ability to respond quickly helped cultivate the feeling of trust and dependability. It was important for both clients and agencies to demonstrate attentiveness by reacting appropriately and fast when required. Teams where someone was nominated to triage issues and requirements to identify priorities and focus did best

The fourth and fifth areas that mattered were the linked areas of strategy and briefing. While we would expect strategy to feature prominently in feedback from clients in any year, it was even more important in 2020 as client teams had to react quickly to revise plans and focus. Disappointingly the feedback from clients was finely balanced with just 52% positive comments on agency strategy.

Equally the common failings of clients at briefing were cited by many agencies as an issue. Without a good brief it is often difficult for agencies to provide good strategic responses. Feedback on briefing was also finely balanced with 51% of mentions by agencies in the area being negative.

Clients that worked together on briefs with their agency right from the first draft not only built a shared sense of ownership but also guaranteed that everyone was clear about what the challenge.

Marketers with the ability to recognise a good idea also thrived as it enabled them to provide the praise and constructive criticism that fuelled the creative processes; a critical skill when brands had to pivot and change their approach to the new circumstances.

Sixth, communication was never more important. This area attracted 24% of total mentions, nearly three-quarters of them positive. Good communications by clients to their agency partners was vital during this period to enable agencies to respond in an informed and constructive way. Ideas such as setting up a project team WhatsApp or Teams channel were able to keep in touch for real time updates, helping to identify problems early on.

Finally, in 2020 account management came into its own. This was mentioned in 15% of the feedback we received, with 73% of responses being positive. Account managers play a critical role in enabling the client and agency relationship but this function became more important and intense during 2020. Organisations with a good client-side agency relationship manager were not only better placed to maintain a healthy working relationship but were also able to drive the most effective and efficient use and management of your agency partners.

2020 necessitated a fundamental shift in the way marketers and their agency partners work together.  Successfully navigating the turmoil and provide a foundation for stability in the years ahead required a focus on the fundamentals of mutual trust and respect, collaboration and good old-fashioned account management.

These factors may change as we emerge from our bunkers but this research has reinforced the fact that strong marketer and agency relationship management is a key driver of brand growth.

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