Long-term relationships

Long-term agency relationships are desired by both agencies and clients – but what’s the secret? Laura Capell-Abra, MD of experiential agency Sledge, discusses the pros and cons.

Clients naturally have the upper hand; they have the budget and therefore will always be seen as the people that agencies should be saying Yes to. But for a relationship to work, this balance needs to be re-addressed.

Clients may have the money but they have made an active decision to hire an agency for their skills and ideas; they need the agency to help them achieve their goals. This relationship needs to be a partnership, not transactional.
Ask any agency their goal; it is to have a sustainable client base with long-term, reliable clients. In the majority of agencies, this means one to three ‘pillar’ clients and a combination of medium and smaller size clients below them.
Ask a client their goal; it is to have an agency that is creative, innovative, understands them, is cost-effective and that they enjoy working with. If you also consider that the better the relationship, the more that boundaries can be pushed in creativity because of a deeper understanding of the client’s brand and objectives, and that better financial deals can be put in place, then there’s quite a lot in it for the client to build a relationship, too.
So why do some clients hop between agencies and what makes other relationships last?
All agencies we asked claimed that the secret of a long-term relationship between the client and agency, was viewing the relationship as a partnership – where both parties were working towards one goal – the creation of a great event. So if we all think the same, why does it happen for some and not for others?

A matter of trust
Ask a client what the biggest driver in selecting an agency is and it’s trust.
Meera Folkes, a marketing properties manager at Sainsbury’s, said: “We should be able to use agencies as an extension of our team, so trust is paramount to that”.
Folkes believes this goes beyond trust in just the agency, to trust in the actual delivery team: “You need to have trust in the people you’ll be dealing with on a day to day basis”.
A client relationship will only stand the test of time if the relationship between the key people becomes that of friendship.
The Robert Walters Career Lifestyle Survey showed 38% of marketers are now working at least 50 hours per week, so we spend more time with our colleagues/clients/suppliers than we do with our family and friends.
No one works in events or marketing for an easy, quiet life and having a good relationship with those you work with is essential. You ask any CEO of an events marketing agency how well they know their biggest client and they are likely to tell you that they spend time together outside work, know their wider family and maybe even attend family weddings.

Does this mean that these relationships can never be broken? Unless one of the key team leaves and it’s seen as a good opportunity to bring in new blood on both sides, the answer is likely to be procurement.
Procurement processes have to be followed and the old ‘chairman’s whim’ is very difficult for them to justify to shareholders. In fact, often it’s harder for the incumbent agencies to keep the position than to lose it.
Cilla Snowball from AMV BBDO, who has been working with Sainsbury’s for 35 years says it is “a high point getting to number one but as anyone in the agency will tell you, it takes a lot of hard work to stay there”.
Tender approach
So how do we feel about procurement and their power to potentially get in the way of our valuable relationships?
We see procurement as the people who say No, and we very rarely seem to thank them when they are the people that say Yes. They are the people that can help us break into a new client to create a new partnership but they are also the people that can break that partnership up.
AMV BBDO is seen as more than an agency to Sainsbury’s, rather as an extension of the business. This is something that many clients and agencies will say, but with a relationship of that length, it has more resonance. The last pitch on public record was back in 2005 and the agency team at the time explained that the re-pitch provided the chance to become Sainsbury’s agency of choice rather than the one the current management had inherited.
Brand Fuel who are synonymous with Google in the events world, do not have a contractual agreement. Michelle Bryan-Low, head of large customer marketing EMEA at Google UK, has publicly said everything they do is put to tender. Brand Fuel however has been their agency of choice on a vast number of their large events for the last 10 years.
Sue Winckler from Brand Fuel puts this down to the quality of their delivery and going on the journey with them as both companies have grown.
Does it worry her that there is no retainer? Of course, she says, but acknowledges that if they keep in mind that they will be judged on their last event, they will continue to work with Google as they ensure that the agency always delivers.
Other relationships are based on a re-occurring pitch process such as O2 and Sledge.
There is the security of a 2-3 year contract but there is a pitch process at the end of it. This is a way of O2 testing Sledge on their creativity and their competitiveness in the marketplace.
A good approach in that there is trust and respect in the form of the contract but also the requirement for the agency not to get lazy.
Nic Cooper, Sledge CEO explains, “the worst point to act comfortable is when you are being compared to other agencies”.
John Worthington, head of events at O2 explains that while “it is time consuming, it is essential to ensure that we are working with the best agency. We place a lot of emphasis on our events, internally and externally, and we need to work with an agency that we can trust.”
Which approach is best, depends on the business model – for the client and the agency.
But why would a client not aim to have a long-term agency partner?

Government/public sector organisations such as the BBC and Nesta put out to tender the vast majority of their projects and often use budget level as a deciding point as to whether they put it out to pitch or automatically select an agency from a pre-reviewed list.

Many clients have tried and failed to find one agency that understands them fully as they develop as a company, they may be great for a certain project but not for the next. They undergo costly pitch processes and have to go through a learning curve with each new agency but, on the flip side, they get varied creative, people vying for that opportunity and normally an unhealthily competitive (for the agency) financial offer. Not a bad option but no partnerships are created.
As an industry we are focused on creativity, it is the buzzword of the year, and of the last five, but a true understanding of the client’s strategy and direction will be what ensures you not only produce great creative, but also build the trust with the client.
Marketing can be a fickle business. What’s on trend right now – flash mobs, pop-ups, digital treasure hunts or any fashionable or gimmicky approach – have all had their time and there will be something else round the corner.
Coming up with the next big technique should be admired and aimed for by all good agencies but it needs to be based on a deep client understanding. Many agencies perceive being more creative as taking more risks and blame clients for not being brave enough.
A study by the RPA presented at Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity showed that 81% of clients believe that longstanding relationships lead to the best advertising with 98% of both agencies and clients agreeing that trust in the agency is also a massive contributor, yet further reasons to question how this trust and creativity can be developed in a pitch process.
So this is to say congratulations to all the agencies that have maintained clients for long periods of time, it’s tough and there will be ups and downs. However, you set an example to the rest of the industry on good client management, we don’t have to say Yes all the time, in fact it’s good to say No; have you thought about doing it like this or that?
Doing great work is what it’s all about in the end as frankly clients do still pay our bills and we’d sadly be nothing without them.

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