Communication agencies help clients strategize, create and communicate their brands. But finding and maintaining a trusting, capable agency can prove to be a difficult process for any business. Having an agency may, for example, introduce disjointed communication and add complexity to your communications process. So, how do you trust someone else with your brand’s communications efforts?
According to the “2018 Global Media Transparency Report,” 40% of survey respondents across marketing, media and procurement believe that the level of trust between clients and agencies is low. The industry’s view has only worsened since 2016, when 29% said the same. This perceived level of trust demonstrates the declining progress in the industry, especially during a time when data is more available and has become increasingly important to inform marketing strategy, storylines and reporting.
Where did we go wrong?
Many agency-client relationships have fundamentally become brief, transactional hookups, where agencies act as suppliers rather than long-term strategic partners. I believe that the issues agencies face with their clients around trust mostly stem from the same area: the agencies’ ability to carry their clients’ business objectives while generating stellar results.
Often times, clients demand a short timeline to achieve the results they are after, which compounds the pressure on the relationship and further questions the agency’s value. Added to that, there has been a growing trend of organizations that are no longer willing to pay the budget they once did; in fact, their monthly budget has in some cases become their yearly budget.
Many of these changes in the client-agency relationship are a result of business models being disrupted and challenged on both the agency and the client sides. It impacts the relationship by raising the stakes on trust, requiring both sides to make an upfront assessment and proactively manage trust throughout the relationship for a return on investment to be cultivated.
Based on what I’ve seen, tension in the relationship has arisen as communication agencies face fewer news outlets and reporters, raising the bar on the stories that garner press coverage. Added to that, consumers are empowered to tell their own story across social channels, creating more noise and making it challenging for organizations to control their brand. On the other end, chief marketing officers are increasingly in need of fast-paced, high-return news coverage that moves the needle for the company’s brand. They view marketing as a profit center and want to show measurable results to justify their spending.
Given the deepening trust divide, what does the agency of tomorrow look like? IBISWorld’s “Public Relations Firms Industry in the U.S.” report, released December 2018, estimates that the public relations industry’s revenue increased to $16.3 billion in 2018, a 3.7% growth from the previous year. The industry is healthy, and the number of existing agencies is a testament to that. But the reality is that there are far too many communication agencies to choose from, and surviving the transformation requires agencies to bridge the divide by focusing on a few key areas to remain relevant.
Develop a rigorous assessment to determine client-agency fit.
Often, an agency will take on a client for the sake of revenue, knowing it’s possible they won’t be able to deliver the results the business is looking for. Starting off a relationship this way makes it difficult to be successful, and ultimately, it doesn’t end well. It can cost both clients and agencies their time and other potential business opportunities.
Ensuring that the agency has an internal partner that understands their role is also just as important to ensure the long-term success of their relationship. Taking a client’s business without a strategic internal partner makes it difficult to develop trust.
Cultivate multiple leads to establish trust from the onset and at every engagement with clients.
To stay relevant and keep winning the trust of clients, agencies need to focus on building client relationships with a few senior people, not just one. A team of senior talent to lead the technology/data and creative direction is key to building and retaining trust should one of the leaders depart the firm.
Agencies need to maintain the flexibility to swap out talent at any time, but they also need to work with clients who are willing to develop trusting relationships with more than one leader.
Aligning creativity and media relationships with client business objectives is key.
Because agencies all sell essentially the same thing — communication campaigns — the world is awash in a sea of brands, and original creativity comes at a premium. Creative talent is a scarce resource and must be tightly paired with media relationships at the forefront of the agency value proposition. Otherwise, when clients believe results or creativity are lacking from the service they receive, they can pressure their agencies for price reductions. It’s a vicious cycle of lower margins, as well as declining client trust and satisfaction.
It’s imperative, for both client satisfaction and business profits, that agencies do everything they can to leverage their top creative talent and satisfy the client’s need for creative output — the special sauce they believe an agency possesses. Furthermore, an emphasis on building the best set of media relationships as an outlet for the distribution of creative work is imperative. Emphasizing fundamental block-and-tackle efforts and generating billable hours, rather than investing in creative product with visible media results, can be one of the quickest ways for an agency to lose the trust of its clients.
As customers become more empowered and the culture of work styles changes, business models are being transformed, requiring agencies to adapt. While the vast majority of agencies and communication professionals would likely agree that a close, trusted relationship leads to better performance, I believe the levels of trust will continue to be challenged.
There is not a one-size-fits-all model to bridge the divide, and marketers’ challenges and the technology landscape will keep changing. But ultimately, building trust and working to keep that trust may lead to better business results for both the client and the agency.