Why Clients Are Rethinking Their Agency Partnerships Right Now

Delays earlier in the year and the pandemic have prompted reassessment

two men in business suits facing each other at opposite ends of a long conference table
COMvergence estimates around $6 billion in media is currently under review globally. Source: Getty Images

The tail end of 2020 is generating a wave of media reviews.

September alone brought news of the NBA, Home Depot, T-Mobile and JPMorgan Chase reviewing their media accounts. The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated shifts in the media landscape and consumer habits and has also led some to reassess marketing investments.

All of this is compounded by clients delaying or pausing reviews earlier in the year. Those reviews have reemerged as agencies with thin resources respond to an array of pitches, and clients are looking for partners who can handle new challenges and are forced to be selective about what new business they pursue.

While total dollars under review will be down for the year as a whole, global data consultancy COMvergence estimates current media under review at $6 billion globally, excluding about $2.5 billion of concluded reviewed billings added since early July.

“We have seen some kind of new business opportunity, big or small, almost every week since the Fourth of July. … Since then, it does seem that media pitches have been fast and furious,” Mediahub U.S. president Sean Corcoran said. He added that Mediahub was seeing twice the new business activity it typically would at this time of year.

Expected delays

A backlog of media reviews earlier in 2020 was bound to produce a flood toward the end of the year. Many clients decided to put on hold ongoing reviews, including those in their late stages, while others delayed planned reviews or decision-making processes that would lead to agency reevaluations.

At the time, “a lot of clients decided they can’t make this important decision on a Zoom call,” Mediahub global CEO John Moore explained.

At a certain point “wait and see” no longer made sense for these clients, and they decided to pursue reviews of their media agency partnerships in the current landscape, even if that meant conducting such business over Zoom.

But that’s not the whole story since the pandemic has accelerated existing trends and upended marketing practices in a way that extends to agency partnerships.

“A disruption in the market can often lead to disruption in agency-client relationships. And modern marketing has never seen a greater disruption than Covid-19,” Omnicom Media Group CEO, North America Scott Hagedorn said.

Changing landscape and shrinking budgets

The pandemic fueled and accelerated changes in the media landscape as more consumers found themselves confined to their homes. Sports were suddenly canceled, meaning an avenue advertisers had relied on for a guaranteed large audiences was suddenly not available. Advertisers realized they needed to change with the times and that many companies are simultaneously dealing with internal shifts that are placing greater emphasis on ecommerce.

“A lot of these companies are going through digital transformation as brands, which has pushed them into new ways of measurement,” Corcoran said.

MediaLink managing director Donna Sharp explained that the past six months has seen many clients reevaluating agency relationships as they look for partners that can help facilitate greater measurement across channels or that are more adept at responding to internal digital transformation.

Of course, clients are also looking for ways to save money under constrained budgets. Among the sources Adweek spoke with, opinion was split about the degree to which pricing was fueling the trend.

“Clients are trying to cut costs and they’re looking at media as an area to start doing it effectively,” Avi Dan, CEO of search consultancy Avidan Strategies said of both reviews and in-housing, while search consultancy ID Comms CEO Tom Denford contended that most clients his consultancy works with are “looking beyond hiring an agency just to give them the cheapest media buying.”

@ErikDOster erik.oster@adweek.com Erik Oster is an agencies reporter for Adweek.