I love agency life. I have spent the past 20 years of my career at agencies. I have met some of my closest friends through work. I have even met my husband at an agency, which led me to where I am now, navigating mom-life and an agency leadership role. I couldn’t be more grateful for what this career choice has taught me and the experiences it has afforded me. That’s why it breaks my heart to see what is happening (or rather, not happening) at many agencies right now.
Agencies exist to help clients. We partner with brands to bring insightful strategy, profound creative, innovative product design—any opportunity that will get them to the promised land of being an admired brand with unprecedented growth. Therefore, it’s only natural that agencies promise transformation to their clients. The problem is that too many agencies haven’t transformed themselves. They are still using a traditional model at a time when clients are under significant pressure to deliver measurable results and need new thinking more than ever. Both agencies and clients can play a meaningful role in driving the change needed.
“Digital” is not a department
Throughout the industry, agencies are still operating in a model where creative is at the center. I’m not saying that creative shouldn’t be at the center, but they shouldn’t be at the center alone.
I was talking to a client at a Fortune 50 company recently who’s working with a renowned, award-winning agency to get a brand campaign done. They want diversity in the work and aren’t getting it. And it’s no wonder. This agency has the same brand planning and creative roles involved that they’ve always had. In many agencies, the digital and analytics teams aren’t even included until the end when they get to throw in some ideas after the strategy and creative thinking is done. I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that virtually every interaction a human has with a brand has a digital component to it. Digital thinking should be infused into everything an agency does from the beginning.
Not every client relationship will be a long-term partnership
Budgets are getting tighter. Measurement and ROI is mandatory. Sometimes getting the best work means multiple agencies who each bring unique thinking. Sometimes asking your agencies to compete for work results in a fresh perspective. We have to be nimble and flexible enough to structure a team that enables clients to get their (agency) team on demand and for the agency to plan accordingly. Ultimately the agency and client have to come together to find the solution that works for both.
Find a new way to pitch
We talk about ourselves for 30 minutes before we even get to our case studies. I believe many clients have come to dread this process because they sit in a room for hours at a time on pitch day watching agency after agency do the same thing and say they’re different. It’s not about us anymore. It’s not even about the client. It’s about their customer. We should all pitch with that as the focal point.
Involve clients more
More and more, clients are asking to be part of the process. They want to collaborate and iterate. And when clients feel like part of the process, they feel ownership in the outcome and are more likely to champion it.
Rethink your agency search process
The traditional RFI, RFP and pitch doesn’t show you what you need to know. It’s like getting married after only going on a few dates. Through these interactions, everyone is on their best behavior. Make sure you include time to visit the agency. Ask them to conduct a workshop or working session. This approach will enable you to observe how collaborative they are with clients, how their team works together and how they think on their feet. This is far more relevant to your day-to-day relationship than a polished proposal and pitch.
Meet the agency leadership team
Ask to hear their creation story and future vision. More specifically, ask how they have evolved the agency in the past few years to meet the needs of the changing client and consumer landscape. Ask how it has impacted their business. Check out the diversity on the leadership team (gender, background, thinking, etc.), and if you don’t see any, that can be a red flag.
Observe the people involved in the pitch process
Is there a technologist in the room? Is there an analytics leader? If the agency didn’t include anyone who comes from a digital and/or data-driven background, ask how they measure the success and effectiveness of their work. If there is, look for chemistry within the team. In other words, observe how the agency team interacts to ensure that they have a genuine collaborative working style.
Inquire about new positions
Diverse thinking in a changing landscape should translate into new hires in newly created roles. If all recent hires are traditional roles, ask why.
Change isn’t easy. The agency business isn’t easy. We certainly aren’t immune to the disruption that many businesses are experiencing. From that perspective, we’re all the same. Where we’re different is in the expectation of where we live on the continuum. Clients expect agencies to be the early adopters of change—and rightly so. They expect us to take risks, get out in front, create the future and then lead them there. After all, we were built for this. It’s time for agencies to rise to the challenge and take the lead.