Brands – are you faithful or are you a flirt?

A white paper published by The Bed Ford Group says the average agency client relationship is now a mere three years. We know in some cases it is only one or, at best, two.

In the 1980s the number was 7.2 years. Another study by agency RPA showed that while 88% of clients claim to openly speak their mind, only 36% of agency partners agree. Also, while 90% of agencies think they really do understand their clients’ business, only 65% of clients agreed.

For folks working in the marketing and communications industry, it sure seems like marketers and agencies are not communicating enough, perhaps they don’t even understand each other very well.

Now Valentine’s Day is almost here and relationship talks are happening all around us. Last year the Daily Mail reported Valentine’s Day is one of the most popular times for relationships to come to an end. So this had me wondering – what with so many hot shops popping up every other day in our industry are brands staying loyal to agencies and vice versa?

Are clients always flirting with leaving their AORs?

Steven Greenway, head of commercial at Scoot, told Marketing he thinks otherwise. The brand currently works with a network of agencies. As such creative ideas are plenty and the brand hardly needs to look outside the network, according to him. Moreover, a lot of the times the fun hot shop agencies are mostly “here today and gone tomorrow”, he adds.

However, Rod Strother, director of the digital and social centre of excellence at Lenovo Singapore, feels sometimes this “flirting around” can actually be all about brands doing good due diligence.

“Checking in with agencies that you’ve seen before and hearing what they are doing that is new or listening to pitches from new agencies which you’ve never met can often provide validation that your current agency is keeping up with or staying ahead of the competition,” Strother says.

He adds that often enough agencies will make contact with brands to introduce themselves.

For Lenovo, he explains, given the amount of projects the company has on board, it is sometimes impossible for its agency (We Are Social) to take on all of them. This is then handed out to other agencies to test their capabilities.

“Nonetheless, as the brand’s main agency, first dibs are always given to We Are Social on any new projects.”

But what if your relationship is a struggling one, I ask Strother. Usually a great deal of investment will have been made on both sides into the relationship, he said.

Also, with the accumulated brand and product knowledge within the agency, it is not always easy to just up and leave a struggling agency client relationship. Hence, it is always worth exploring why it’s not working.

Ideally, an open and honest dialogue is needed in such a situation if both parties are able to step back to assess each other’s performance. However, as with any relationship, there is no guarantee of the relationship not souring. As Strother says:

So yes, when you do run out of options then unfortunately severing ties is your last resort. But that’s exactly what it should be – a last resort.

Agencies take on the love affair

Keith Timimi, chairman of VML Qais, adds that before embarking on a relationship it is the duty of any buying organisation to perform due diligence and carefully select from the options before it.

“Having selected one or more agency partners, investment is needed on all sides to get the benefit out of those relationships,” he says.

“The best work tends to be driven out of deep long-term partnerships – with teams of people from the client and agency side who have been through the wars together, have had their ups and downs, and have worked out how to work it out together.”

He adds a big part of the agency client relationship evolution needs to start with the procurement department. In a nutshell, more needs to be done to evaluate the best partnerships that can take “more account of the outsized contribution of intangibles to performance-based success”.

Meanwhile, with the customer pulling further ahead of marketers, agencies and clients need to come closer together to create a new relevance for brands and products in the world that consumers have fashioned for themselves.

“Now more than ever we need to be thinking long-term,” Timimi says.

Meanwhile, Dan Gibson, managing director of Havas Singapore, agrees that when clients do snoop around for ideas or “flirt” with other agencies it takes away from giving 100% with their current agencies.

So how do you ensure your client is not straying?

Gibson says agencies and clients both need to be sensitive to their partners and listen to their needs. That insight should be applied to salvage the relationship. If it’s still worth a shot, then a strategy must be formulated to “shake things up, so that your partner feels an immediate, tangible and positive difference”.

Ajit Varghese, regional CEO of Maxus, adds that when the relationship is not evolving or there is an expectation mismatch, partnerships should see a natural end.

If not, both parties end up investing a lot behind understanding the brands, working styles and expectations, intellectual equity, change management, and softer aspects of a team’s passion and speed. And all that gets lost in transition and rebuilding.

“Smart clients and agencies do understand this and set up constant evaluation metrics and set the agenda that is constantly discussed so these relationships are worked upon with KPIs and objectives,” Varghese says.

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