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The Fast Company Executive Board is a private, fee-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.

Is it time to redesign the agency/client relationship?

Beware of agencies that are shiny objects and flash over substance. Agency/client relationships today must be metrics-driven and outcomes-based. Anything else is history. 

Is it time to redesign the agency/client relationship?
[Prostock-studio; Looker_Studio /AdobeStock]

A few months ago, Adweek reporter Emmy Liederman asked: “What Do CMOs Actually Want in an Agency?” As a former New York Stock Exchange CMO and now an agency founder/CEO, I was drawn to the question. I’m challenged with balancing both sides in managing an agency that differentiates itself by having former client leaders as our front-line, leading creative development. It got me thinking about the opportunities to redesign the client/agency relationship with everything we now know about remote work, digital upskilling, software-based account management tools, and new communications methods.

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Liederman got insightful responses from big-name CMOs. Chipotle’s Chris Brandt said, “Giving agencies feedback is a tremendous skill. It’s not enough to just say ‘I don’t like this.’ You need to have seen enough ‘creative’ to actually give effective feedback.” Melissa Wildermuth, Global Creative Director at General Mills, said, “I love the idea of demystifying the creative process and not having creative presentations feel like the ‘big reveal.’ Ideas and creativity are a team sport.” It was a super helpful piece, and I wanted to extend some of these ideas to see what else we can do to serve both sides of the agency/client relationship.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned during the past couple of years, it is that everything can benefit from a fresh approach. This is especially true when taking into account a constantly evolving digital ecosystem with multigenerational internal and external teams, the urgent need to drive diverse perspectives into everyday dialogue, and new partnerships in a more networked approach to servicing accounts.

RE-EXAMINING NORMS

There used to be a very defined structure to the agency/client relationship. Step one: The client identified a need, a pressing deadline, enough budget, and (hopefully) developed a clear request for proposal. Agencies would pitch in response to those RFPs. One would get chosen. Statements of work would get red-lined by each other’s legal teams, and then both parties signed.

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At last, the kick-off meeting and great enthusiasm as the ideas flowed. The project manager kept everyone on track. It all had a frenzied-yet-pleasant and familiar rhythm. Late-night brainstorms, early morning meetings, rushing to catch flights to the client’s HQ, back to base to regroup, final delivery, project launches, final payments sent. Everyone hopes there’s a table paid for at the next industry awards. Then repeat. Back to step one.

Well, those days are over.

Business moves much faster than that today. Projects overlap. Goals shift. The client’s HQ is now virtual and its staff is spread across multiple time zones and countries. Agencies are being called to backfill large chunks of capabilities the client can’t secure headcount for because of a talent shortage. Clients need agency partners but prefer highly managed service-level agreements as opposed to the “handshake”-style retainers of the past.

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WORKING SMARTER

Mental health and climate issues aside, no one wants to return to the pre-COVID onerous agency/client travel schedule. It’s archaic. No, I don’t believe virtual is ever going to replace in-person relationship building. But now I’m going to send two team members to present with an efficient turnaround, rather than uprooting the whole team for three days.

For example, we’ve been pre-recording portions of our presentations in a modular fashion, then pulling them (virtually) into (virtual) meetings. Life is too short to have the entire team on a video call. It’s inefficient and lacking in creativity.

In fact, I’ve noticed many people are now being more deliberate around in-person versus digital meetings as a whole, mitigating the risk and making them worthy of attention. I like this, as it can make relationships stronger when both parties are being conscious about taking time to meet. For me, it’s about gathering as many people as possible so that clients, prospects, and, in a wider sense, the community itself, can interact and get to know each other.

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In other instances, I’ll meet with several people at once and go for a walk-and-talk or join a pitch-and-run group. Recently I was invited to an event by the venture firm M13. They brought together a community of friends and portfolio companies, rather than having a series of 1:1 meet and greets. It was very efficient—and also helped replenish the soul. In New York City, I’m also mindful of a client’s travel time, suggesting we meet near Grand Central if I know they’d like to catch the 5:41 p.m. fast train back to New Haven.

FINDING THE RIGHT PARTNER

Finally, if you’re an executive looking for an agency, especially if you’re a founder and this is your first time using outside help, go deeper with your inquiries. Find out how the agency really operates behind the scenes, what their values are, and, importantly, whether they follow through or just like to look as though they do.

You need a currency of trust and I believe that gets harder the larger the agency. Find out who “does the work” after the contract is signed. Is it the senior-level executives you really bonded with during the pitch process? Or does it get farmed out to less experienced team members? I believe this is a major small-agency advantage, as more boutique environments can focus on doing the work, not just servicing a large agency P&L.

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I think the future of client engagements is building highly agile and custom teams around a client’s needs, whether that’s using a combination of staffers, third-party contractors with specific skill sets, or embedding agency employees temporarily on-site (which is what we’ve done and it works well).

Beware of agencies that are shiny objects and flash over substance. Agency/client relationships today must be metrics-driven and outcomes-based. Anything else is history.


Marisa Ricciardi is Founder/CEO of the Ricciardi Group, the NY-based strategic marketing agency with clients including Visa and Adobe.  

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