Creating partnerships with clients

Liz Wilson, COO at Karmarama, asks how agencies can realistically create partnerships that last

As we prepare for this year’s Business Growth Conference, Liz Wilson, COO at Karmarama, asks how agencies can realistically create partnerships that last with clients.

“For a few years now we’ve been talking about the need for agencies to transform their relationships with clients, to become true partners. In the first airing of his ‘Reimagine’ agenda, new president Nigel Vaz stressed the importance of a commitment, “to become clients’ partners for growth.”

He’s right. We work in a ‘business as unusual’ world where all the easy growth is gone. Agencies who are simply contracted by clients for a quick fix communications challenge can’t possibly develop a deep enough understanding to spot meaningful growth opportunities. Everyone loses out. The more we are commoditised, the less value our clients actually get.

But ‘partnership’ is a big fat word and it doesn’t come without risk. Performance related incentives, for example, are often cited as examples of ways to work as partners. However, in practice, they are relatively rare. Not every agency, or client, has the appetite or ability to plan for the uncertainty that they can bring.

So, how can agencies move towards these partnership models of working without taking on risks that they and their clients can’t sustain? I think there are a few things we can do, we’ll be exploring them further with some accomplished practitioners at the conference on 10 July.

Prove value

We have quantitative evidence that long-term relationships work commercially. A study by Aprais in 2013 showed that better client-agency relationships correlate with better creative output – a differential of +37% between the best and worst, and with media output - a differential of +21%.

Similarly having a good understanding of marketing effectiveness, and being able to talk fluently about it with clients is key to agencies’ ability to build trust and respect. Lisa Thomas, chief brand officer at Virgin is speaking at the conference and I’m looking forward to hearing from her how agencies can better create and articulate value for their clients.

Choose your partners

Partnerships only work with the right partners. Clients who can’t be convinced that the value they are really buying is that long-term partnership, rather than the product, will not make good partners.

When agencies do find a client with that mindset it’s a great idea to set that shared understanding down on paper. There’s a lovely example of this from AVIS, which set out a ‘relationship contract’ with DDB. Statements like “Avis will never know as much about advertising and brand communication as DDB, and DDB will never know as much about the rent-a-car business as Avis,” create an equivalency in expertise and breed respect between partners.

Use senior account people

In recent years it’s been harder to articulate the value of account management to clients. Procurement teams often want to cross out the ‘account management line’ in the budget, seeing its value as too intangible.

But in my view, the role of the account team has never been more crucial. They are the people accountable for building the business relationship, for configuring the agency around client needs. We live in a world where adtech, martech, and every other kind of tech has become impossibly complicated. The amount of data companies can collect has grown immeasurably. Clients need their agencies to help navigate a path through this complexity and this is where strong account management excels, building trust and value day-by-day.

Create air in your relationship with your clients

Clients are often hungry to apply our creativity to a bigger canvas upstream in their business. But the demands of our everyday commitments can drag big ambitions down. When structuring our day-to-day working relationships with clients, as challenging as it may be, we need to strive to create a bit of oxygen for that bigger picture. Make a bit of space where together we can invest a small amount of time raising our eyes above the immediate need.

Committing to a bigger mission, that goes beyond the immediate individual marketing challenges not only opens our eyes to wider opportunities, it also energises teams with ambition.

There are things that every agency, however big or small, can do to create a better partnership for growth with clients. What’s great about the Business Growth Conference is that you get to hear straight from the horse’s mouth how other people are tackling the issues we face, and transforming their businesses. I’m looking forward to learning as much this year as I did last year.

Book your place at this year's conference before 14 June and get your ticket at our early bird rate  of £140 for members and £210 for non-members.

Last updated 21 January 2022