Reading Adweek’s Agency Report Card issue I was happy to see that agencies have really upped their creative product, as evidenced by most of the comments in that category. But stronger creative is only one piece of the solution to growing and sustaining long-term client relationships.
The number of client losses seems to be growing, as does the number of unsuccessful pitches. For the past few years it seems agencies have stepped up the focus on creative solutions but stepped back on business and marketing solutions, and, most crucial of all, powerful business relationships/partnerships. Many blame that loss on the continual turnover of CMOs, but relationships should be up and down the ladder all the way from CEO to junior brand managers. That was how relationships between agencies and brands like Pepsi, Procter & Gamble, Kraft, Kellogg and Unilever endured for what seemed like eons. Such partnerships should not be reliant on one person. In recent years agencies have scaled back on their account services groups and, ergo, relationships have become frayed and marketing ideas less prolific.
Training programs for account management, which groomed and fostered business solutions for marketers, have been cut to the bone or eliminated. As a result, agencies have come to depend on on-the-job training of managers, many of whom have not had the breadth of experiences of their former bosses. If one looks around the industry today, the number of senior and seasoned account executives has dwindled, with their roles consolidated and fewer executives in charge. As senior and experienced account leaders models have retired or been downsized, there have been few groomed to take on their leadership positions and to segue easily into their client-partner role.
Further, agencies have depleted the middle-management positions, relegating responsibilities to very junior staff and thereby leaving a gap in future leadership. Long-term client partnerships with agencies have suffered as a result, making agencies vulnerable with clients seeking out business/marketing advice from consultancies and other marketing firms.
A few agencies have taken notice and are starting to rebuild the one-on-one client relationship all the way up the line, adding more executive mind power at the top. But a great many are not. As part of their team, agencies need business- and marketing-savvy people who can sit down with clients and work with them on their business issues. Client confidence in what agencies can do for their businesses needs to be restored. By adding back those all-important client-facing people and by providing and expanding training and skills for the people who service them will be a step forward.
It’s not just a matter of adding staff. The all-important key is adding highly qualified business management. Above all, agencies need to delve deep into candidate references. In many cases, those hiring have thought an easy fix is to hire familiar people they either worked with in the past or who were referred by someone who had. Knowing people from a different time/situation and different role may not be relevant to the task now at hand. Agencies need to evaluate each and every situation and hire based on what a particular candidate brings to today’s needs and what value their experience will provide to the client and, of course, the agency.
Bringing a full team of talent to a client’s table is what’s needed to restore the strong solution-based business expertise the client came to the agency for in the first place.
Sharon Spielman is managing director at Jerry Fields Associates. She can be reached at email@example.com.