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How to avert pitches

A view from the IPA Client Relationship Group. Co-authored by Emma Howarth, Head of Account Management at JWT and Andrew Godley, MD of Red Brick Road.

We’re all aware of the effort that goes into building relationships during a pitch process. But like any good marriage, the true work begins once the honeymoon ends, and the IPA’s recently-formed Client Relationship Group focused our second session around how we assess, and subsequently grow the agency-client relationships.

Carry out comprehensive assessments

Despite the huge changes to the structure of the industry in recent years, it appears, disappointingly, that the majority of models used to assess the health of the relationships have changed little, although it’s clear there is a greater awareness of the importance of the scorings today more than ever. Certainly a proactive rather than reactive approach to relationship reviews is required. From external referral ratings, 360’ appraisals to quarterly client reviews, all were clear that these measurements require a large dose of honesty and open conversation to feel the full benefit. An MAA piece from a couple of years ago reported that “more than half of marketers feel that agencies do not fully understand them as a client and the issues impacting their business, yet 90% of agencies feel they do understand clients”. Where the agency-client review sessions happen at a top layer management level, there is a danger they fail to give an accurate picture of the day-to-day picture on the account, so the comprehensive flow of information into the scoring system becomes crucial. Does the appraisal reflect a general sense from client or agency, does it allow insight into individual relationships? Are these all given equal importance? How is the wider team involved? Does the review encompass the potential alongside the current picture? We also questioned whether there was enough focus or clarity on understanding the definitions on the score sheets, to enable all parties to interpret the areas in the same way.

Ensure ongoing dialogue

We discussed numerous triggers along the way to help assess the relationship with honesty. Has the contact frequency dipped recently, are calls, emails returned promptly? Is the balance of conversation focused on the work, or the process to get there? Does the conversation stretch beyond the day-to-day, is it a relationship where there are seconded agency or client team members? How often is advice sought from the agency, whether in a business context or even for a client job move? Factors such as these should be under constant monitoring, rather than left until the scoresheet is on the clipboard. The attributes for a great Client Business partner identified at the last session should more than allow issues to be signposted well before they are under the scrutiny of an official review, and junior team members should be schooled to watch out for the clues.

A series of structured approaches, used at various points through a typical year, were also covered:

1, The Annual Relationship Plan – a formal ‘wrap up’ of the year, a balanced scorecard, that reviews everything from client referral ratings (the thinking, creative, effectiveness) through to service delivery and the relationship. It should also define the year ahead: Business strategy and marketing strategy. And the ‘mutual gains’ conversation should not be shied away from – both in terms of the business challenges we can help with and the broader role we’d like to play in deliverables.

2, The Bi-Annual Client Pulse – to work through a ‘lighter touch’ of the above and understand Client Referral Ratings and other such metrics.

3, The Quarterly Review – there should be an insistence on these happening and becoming more formalised, beyond a mere ‘check-in’.

4, The Fortnightly Momentum Session – an agency internal session that monitors progress, assesses issues and develops Action Plans as appropriate

5, The Ad Hoc Client Check-In – there was recognition that ‘little and often’ can work very well in building relationships and keeping business on track especially when combined with more formal review processes.

All of these are only useful if they reflect reality – the flow of information is key. Building approaches upwards from the Fortnightly Momentum Session ensures that the people working on the business are contributing and being listened to. It ensures an account is grounded on fact not fantasy.

Both SWOT Analysis and PEST Analysis are regularly used, as well as a Grow/Maintain/Defend assessment, providing key inputs to bi-annual/annual reviews. The group supported their continued use to capture broader factors. There was also the reality check, that much as account handlers and business leaders don’t like to admit, there are sometime factors out of our control. Who could have foreseen the audacious Kraft Heinz bid for Unilever and the potential impact it would have had on agency rosters? And who could have foreseen how quickly it was abandoned?

Keep the energy alive

We used the AAR Relationship Categorisation Model as the basis for our session. Fundamentally it suggests how the client/agency relationship can sometimes change over time: The early stages focus on our ability to add most significant value – the understanding, the thinking, the energy, the initiative – to transform our client’s business. It’s what we pitched for. It’s what got both parties excited. It’s what offers the potential to do category-defining work. However, over time this may shift. And things that made for a strong relationship initially can become increasingly forced; the quarterly strategy and ‘agenda-setting’ session skipped in favour of tangible demonstrations of output: Better, faster, cheaper. We can quickly lose our swagger, replaced as the advisor by someone new. Someone with a skew towards a specialised, ‘flavour of the month’, subject.

Elizabeth Barnsdale then shared how she’d applied this model when defining a core agency proposition. It was evolved: Clients were plotted based on their relationship (gradations from positive to negative) and their requirement (more strategy vs more production). This was then overlaid with financials (revenue to agency, profit to agency). This allowed an objective appraisal of the client/agency relationship based on how far away, or not, an individual client was from the core ‘ideal’ agency proposition. In some cases driving a fundamental re-appraisal of whether the relationship was viable for both parties.

Create the 'model' relationship

The group discussion explored both of these frameworks and proposed further models and criteria.

Crucially it was felt that more dimensions should be considered. Like most organisations, agencies are multi-faceted. We need to build businesses with variety, both in terms of the industry sectors our clients represent and the different challenges they face. Establishing the right mix and variety, in terms of width and breadth, helps ensure we create the best work and the strongest ideas culture to support them and make them fly. The Fun, Fame, Fortune ‘model’ goes some way to assessing and reviewing relationships: Does an account give teams the opportunity to have fun – either because it’s highly creative or particularly enjoyable (the lines of client/agency merge)? Does an account offer fame – genuine effectiveness-driven fame – for the individual working on it, the agency and ultimately the client? Does an account generate fortune in terms of income and margin?

It was also agreed that we need to capture potential. Just as the AAR model flagged client needs can move from ‘ideas that can transform my business’ to ‘better, cheaper, faster’ output, so clients obsessed by output can sometimes be moved to a more strategic footing – when challenges in their sector allow or when an agenda, often driven by a new CMO, changes.

Work together better

It is then up to the joint client/agency team to ensure that they make use of the output from all of these measures, and act swiftly and effectively to raise the scores even higher. The more granular, the better, and clear roles and responsibilities should be set for each action.

Why should a 100-day plan only be adopted for the initial stages following a pitch, or when the relationship has truly broken down? If a capability gap is identified across both teams, joint training can have financial benefits as well as team-building rewards.  How will the improvements be measured, or incentivised? Does the existing scope allow the opportunity for the changes required, or should additional projects be identified?  Can best practice be shared from other agency accounts, or from clients’ other roster agencies as encouragement?

Crucially, all parties should be clear both on short-term improvements (towards the next review) as well as the longer term picture of a successful working relationship and the role that each has to play in achieving it. 

The IPA Client Relationship Group represents and works primarily for those in agency client servicing and account management. It serves to raise the real and perceived value of the client service discipline through contributing to a range of issues affecting the industry at large. Find out more about the group here.

Last updated 29/06/2017

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