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4 ways agencies and clients can avoid a death match

4 ways agencies and clients can avoid a death match Josh Dreller

On the topic of agency and advertiser relations, an industry veteran told me something late last year that I've been chewing on for months. For context, the person who told this to me has worked (multiple times) on both the agency or advertiser side for close to thirty years.

"The pressure on client contacts is to not do something that could cause them to lose their jobs while the pressure on agencies is to constantly innovate and bring new ideas. It's these opposing energies (moving in opposite direction) that can make working together that much more difficult."

4 ways agencies and clients can avoid a death match

It wasn't said in a negative or way. It was a matter-of-fact statement from years of experience meant to help better illuminate some of those head-scratching moments when relationships hit bumps in the road.  I didn't think much of it until I ran into a few issues in the weeks following our conversation and this tidbit of insight did in fact help bring to light the source of some minor conflict. Armed with my newfound awareness, I was able to better handle a few sticky situations and resolve them rather effectively.

This is most especially not an indictment on client contacts. It's not about being selfish. Keeping their job doesn't necessarily mean playing to not lose. It means that these client contacts have been entrusted with stewarding some rather important budgets that could literally mean the success or failure of their company. If they fail, it could mean factory closings and the loss of the jobs. They should be a bit risk adverse, as that is just the responsible way to work.  But of course, as an agency, we hear from and read study after study where CMOs implore their agencies to keep bringing them fresh and innovative ideas. A good portion of these opportunities can appear (but not actually be) risky and involve emerging channels that are great concepts, but lack the solid track record to make them viable for a client to actually green-light.

In addition, there may be new, advanced approaches to measurement and campaign effectiveness tracking that an agency would like to share with their clients but can't because it might end up causing more of a Pandora's Box effect if not presented clearly and with supporting evidence. Sometimes agencies have to hold back and wait for the right time to bring these things up.

So, yes, I've been chewing on those words for a while now. Undoubtedly, it's a blanket statement that can be completely irrelevant in many circumstances. But if it's more fact than fiction, then maybe it might help our two teams to better understand each other just a little more -- which leads me to the agency and client conversation. For years I've been hearing from both sides that "things are good, but they could always get better." How do we evolve the conversation and update it to the next era of digital marketing? What are the legacy approaches that are holding this industry from reaching its full potential?

Understand each other's point of view from the start

What's your approach and what's our approach to marketing? Where do we differ and why? Where do we agree and why? I wish we had more of these conversations. Many of the agency and client kickoff meetings I've attended are very straightforward with what has been done in the past and what the goals are for the future. Maybe some of that work has been done in the agency evaluation stage, but those conversations generally involve execs at the highest level. It's absolutely fantastic when I see both sides of the table on the front lines ready, able, and willing to speak to marketing style and point of view. 

One of the reasons why this is so important in our industry versus other industries is that digital marketing is a young business that is still working out the kinks. Standards and best practices are few and far between. If you ask a group of industry vets what their POV is on a certain hot topic, you will get a variety of answers especially if their backgrounds come from different sides of the industry.

Of course, that initial knowledge transfer meeting has to happen. However,  I'd like to see that conversation evolve to a much deeper level where both sides air their stylistic similarities and differences. Once you understand the why and the how of the person sitting across from you, the what makes much more sense. This can be a very scary prospect for industry folks who haven't yet perfected their craft or are capable of articulating their aesthetic. Explaining your approach can leave you open for criticism and you could even turn off the listener if they don't agree with your point of view.

And that's why this doesn't happen enough.  Even though many clients would be more than willing to have this conversation, if there's even the slightest possibility that the client side isn't interested in this dialogue, then agencies might not risk rocking the boat. But imagine the upside -- it would force both sides to get a better handle on what they actually believe to be the essence of great marketing and raise the conversation to a higher level. Plus, by going through this exercise, both sides would have a better understanding of the motivations and goals of the other which is unbelievably helpful in any partnership.

Agencies need to be treated like experts and live up to that level of trust

Just five years ago, online marketing was primarily email, search, and banners. But today, with mobile, social, online video, apps, RTB, etc., this industry is innovating at such a fast pace that even experts who spend their entire day focused on digital marketing are having trouble keeping up to speed. When you also factor in that most client contacts only spend a portion of their time focused on digital, the need for advertisers to rely on outside expertise is more important now than ever before.

Yet, agencies can't expect everyone to take whatever they say at face value, especially when part of a client contact's responsibility is to be risk adverse and question everything. Part of the job at an agency is not just presenting ideas, but selling them in as well. And I don't mean "selling" them in terms of "BS-ing" anyone -- you have to learn how your client best digests your recommendations and provide them in that format.

Agencies -- if you feel that your client counterpart is hesitant to immediately accept what you're saying, don't take it personally. It's probably just cautiousness stemming from their aforementioned need to be risk adverse. However, some of it also stems from the fact that many agencies seem like black boxes to advertisers. A lot of processes and knowledge is shielded from clients as things agencies might feel clients don't need to know or are too busy to take the time to understand. Unfortunately, when there's mystery involved, it can be very natural to be dubious even when there's nothing to be suspicious about. An advanced dialogue helps build trust through transparency.

To evolve the agency and client conversation, I'd like to see more leaps of faith on the client side. On the flip side, agencies, if the client does put that trust in our hands, we have to live up to our end of the bargain. We need to know our clients' businesses as well as they know their businesses and we need to bring them advanced, well conceptualized ideas that are aligned with their brand and goals. We also need to present the information with the right timing (don't bring a Q1 idea in the middle of Q3) and in a way that is very palatable for them and portable enough to pass around to their teams.

Measurement and holistic digital advertising

As a media technologist and analytics practitioner, I support web measurement and data insights as much as the next guy. There's certainly a ton of directional evidence that can be used to best plan and buy digital campaigns. But, (and here comes the "but") I'm constantly floored with how much emphasis this industry puts into the absolute numbers.  There are just so many discrepancies and footnotes with how data is collected and viewed that I could fill 10 columns on iMediaConnection. For example, consumers now use an average of 10.4 different information sources before making a purchase -- and use multiple devices (I've heard between four and seven) to access digital content. Most of these touch points are untrackable, or if they are trackable, they can't be perfectly integrated into the overall measurement strategy.

The analogy I use most often in this discussion is the U.S. Economic Index. The Economic Index is a set of ten key variables that the government (and most economists) uses to judge the health of the American economy that include things such as the unemployment rate, building permit registration, consumer confidence, etc. But no economist in their right mind would narrowly focus on a single variable and declare any confident conclusion.

Recently, comScore's Josh Chasin remarked that everyone on Madison Avenue knows "that digital is the most measurable medium," and then made the observation that the corollary is, "that sometimes digital ends up being the medium with the most measures." At some point in our industry's past, we forgot that the metrics were there to help us build informed insights. Instead, we have spent our time trying to affect the metrics. Not to say that conversions aren't important -- they are, especially for direct response dollars in a strictly, online-only business, but you have to know what you're actually looking at to make any concrete conclusions.

Advertisers, you should know that your agency is going to tell you how they feel but are going to do what you say. It's very hard for an agency manager to try to reset this complex topic with their own colleagues, let alone with clients who have been working in a metrics and conversion focused world for years. It's not anyone's fault -- the entire industry has pushed this direction for years, and to change this mindset is going to take a lot of work on both sides.

I think most experienced agency execs would rightly say that you need to pick and choose your battles, but a unified measurement approach is one of the most important needs facing our industry. A lot of folks are simply winging it and are focused on getting your metrics up without necessarily forwarding the true campaign goals. It starts on the front lines with agencies and clients having this dialogue. When agencies don't feel like they can have this dialogue, the entire industry is held back.

Advertisers, in many cases the metrics you're tracking might actually be perfectly suited for your campaign.  But a good place to start would be to ask your agency what they really feel about the metrics they're presenting to you every month and provide them a safe forum to bring up some of these more debatable ideas on measurement like attribution. You might have to prod them a bit. They have to feel that they won't get their knuckles wrapped if you disagree with what they present. I'm not saying all of the numbers need to be thrown out -- just make sure that both of you aren't completely evaluating campaign success on arbitrary metrics going up or down. Evolve the conversation and you will get rewarded for it.

As a media technologist fluent in the use of leading industry systems, Josh Dreller stays abreast of cutting edge digital marketing and measurement tools to maximize the effect of digital media on client goals. He has achieved platform certification...

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Commenter: Nick Stamoulis

2012, April 04

Transparency is so important. No client wants to feel like they are dealing with an agency that keeps everything in the back room. You have to walk your clients through the process, explain why you do it this way, to get them to take that leap of faith and trust your agency.