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Why agencies must help brands adapt to change

Why agencies must help brands adapt to change
Help clients tackle the changes buffeting their brands and they will treat you as a true partner, writes Sophie Payne, New Business Director at Publicis.

The first IPA Adaptathon was heavy on consensus. Consensus that the best work comes from well-functioning client agency teams.

Consensus that all client agency relationships would benefit from having trust and honesty at their core. Consensus that we ought to update the way we evaluate our relationships, so that we’re capturing and measuring how people feel, not just how the business is performing.

So if we’re all in violent agreement, why are agencies still wringing their hands?

The Alliances Adaptathon was a worthwhile day of reflection on those relationships that soar and those that sour.

IPA President Ian Priest shared the stat that the average client agency tenure has plummeted from seven years and two months in 1984 to just two years and six months today. As we are a people-driven industry, the quality of our relationships is behind such a trend, making it a pertinent issue to investigate.

The format of a hackathon typically promises a solution to the issue under debate. Most agency people probably went away with their own action plans – a timely reminder to pick up the phone and have a “how’s life?” chat with your clients, a nudge to examine the way we are reviewed and remunerated – but probably not the panacea they were hoping for. 

And that’s because our knowledge of what makes a great relationship isn’t what’s lacking. We all know what you should do. But as many would attest with relationships in their personal lives, there can be a gap between desire and deed. We know what dysfunctional looks like, but we might not be doing enough to avoid slipping into it.

Consider the complex media landscape we now operate in, versus the universe in 1984 when our relationships looked statistically much healthier. There’s convergence; second, third and fourth screens; the need for speed; the grey area of proving ROI on content; and extracting meaning from big data, to name just a few.

Marketers (on both sides of the client agency divide) haven’t got a firm enough handle on most of these things yet. And that’s the stumbling block for agencies that aren’t being treated like the true “partner” they expect to be.

Some years ago at a different agency, I remember sitting in a client meeting with a newly appointed General Manager who insisted on referring to us as “added value vendors” – and I recall feeling fairly affronted.

But that’s where we sit on the company balance sheet, amongst other suppliers, like those who bring the printer toner or paper cups for the coffee machine.

As much as agencies like to believe we have the exalted consigliere status of Robert Duvall’s character in The Godfather, some clients simply see us as “vendors” – the “added value” kind if you’re doing well.

If agencies have lost their seat at the table, it’s because we need to be leading the way, simplifying and making manageable the changes buffeting our clients’ brands. When we do this, the benefits can be seen in both the length of client relationships and the agency shop-window.

It was telling that the examples held up as the pinnacle of effective creativity at the Adaptathon were mostly TV-based traditional campaigns - Cadbury Gorilla, John Lewis and Hovis’ 120th anniversary. Is that evidence enough that we’re not, collectively, getting to grips with our brave new world?

You can have honesty and trust, you can have a quarterly client agency review that measures how both parties feel, but there’s a need to grasp the nettle of the real issue here. That only by mastering complexity on our clients’ behalf will we earn our seat back at Vito Corleone’s right-hand side.


The IPA is to offer free relationship counselling for the next 100 days from counsellor and psychotherapist Alison Bone. Find out more here.

Last updated 09/10/2013

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