October 8, 2020 Peter Bakker

How has COVID affected the client-agency relationship?

As Lenin once said, “there are decades where nothing happens and there are weeks when decades happen”. As the recent COVID-19 challenges are reshaping all of our personal and work relationships it is time to wake up before our personal relationships start to deteriorate and our working environment becomes a zombie-infected corporate landscape that will significantly slow a potential economic recovery. The pandemic has led governments to prolong the life of many undeserving companies. Keeping this in balance will be vital to the long-term recovery.

It has also reshaped our personal relationships in unprecedented ways, forcing us to live close together with some people and further apart from others. Life during lockdown has necessitated close, constant contact with our families and partners, but social distancing measures have isolated us from our friends and wider communities. In a work context, some brands and businesses are experiencing major downturns in demand, while others are experiencing almost unmanageable upturns.

Regardless of your specific business context, it is essential to maintain strong client-agency relationships during these challenging times.

Strategic partner or tactical resource?

The glory days of the legacy agencies were well in decline even before COVID blanketed the world. Many of the world’s renowned brands and businesses were already pivoting faster than any of these big holding groups and have been dictating the new model for quite some time. When the legacy agencies formed conglomerate holding companies, their approach to collaborating with clients became transactional, and they gave up stewardship of brand strategy. Because of that, the agencies started losing high-level contact with the C-suite and the board, and, subsequently, the management consultancies like Accenture and McKinsey filled the void.

To make things worse, agencies are not proficient at components of the newly complex marketing environment that CMOs face, such as analytics, e-commerce, marketing logistics, or technology strategy and adaptation. Agencies downgraded themselves to one area of value to clients: content development. They went from being strategic partners to a tactical resource.

The six ingredients needed for a successful client-agency relationship

As brands slowly re-emerge from this COVID-induced state of unconsciousness, the tattered client-agency relationships will need to be rekindled as many of the underlining pillars have been tested to the limit. These pillars should consist of six key components:

  1. Transparency/honest
  2. Collaboration
  3. Communication
  4. Strategic & cultural alignment
  5. Process
  6. Multilateral expectations and action points

Unfairly, and all too often, the decay of these ingredients has been attributed to the current COVID crisis, however in some respects it has simply highlighted the hidden perils in every relationship.

Clients — with or without a clear COVID strategy in place — have been reluctant and/or unable to clearly communicate their agency requirements. By withholding information and expectations it has seriously undermined the strategic alignment — if there even was one at the outset.

Meanwhile agencies — like many of their clients — were completely taken by surprise as to the severity of the crisis and did not have contingency plans in place. While many agencies now thrive on the changing digital requirements from clients, in most circumstances these are being “band-aided” without a clear long-term strategy, objectives or expectations.

All too often we see SMEs jump on the digital bandwagon, develop new websites and e-commerce solutions only to be disillusioned by the lack of engagement and return. Both clients and agencies have an obligation to clearly communicate and agree the six components that constitute the client-agency relationship.

Where to from here?

In the midst of the current chaos, there is also opportunity. The pandemic has had an obvious impact on spending. Indeed, many of our clients have had their budgets cut or frozen. But it has also provided an opportunity which we at IMMedia Content have embraced: from accelerating brand transformation, to investing in key resources and projects, such as our own digital assets, and the development of content such as this piece.

Primarily focusing on reducing cost by getting rid of your best performers will eventually kill agencies. You can cut back on the dough and make a pizza so cheap nobody will eat it. You can make an agency so young that nobody will hire it.

As the economic hamster-ball is slowly regaining momentum, clients too will need to invest in key strategic projects and align both agencies and technology to turbocharge their future content developments. Our IMMediate content platform not only provides this content springboard, it also allows the subscribers to be and remain well ahead on the content curve.

Speak to us today about how we can partner with your to create the perfect content for your business.