Agencies and marketers have got to know each other better over Zoom during lockdown, but in the future brands will rely on partners who can combine insight with agility.
The uptick in Zoom and Teams meetings under lockdown may have done more than just introduce colleagues, clients and partners to each other’s front rooms and wandering cats. It may also hold the key to how the client-agency relationship develops as businesses emerge from lockdown.
According to George Roberts, client services director at Five by Five, looking into one another’s home spaces has taken the transparency debate, which was circling marketing before lockdown, to a whole new level. The result, he believes, is that the successful relationships will be those that can maintain this shift to a more open and honest way of working together.
“The speed at which businesses were adapting to the situation forced greater transparency,” he says. “Information was being shared immediately in terms of business strategy and budget, and despite the different pressures we were all facing, it led to closer collaboration and a stronger creative output in arguably a much shorter time.”
“Anyone can have a sale. We wanted our customers to know that ours was the biggest and the best. The campaign made that happen.”
Jamie Hewett, B&Q
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Remote working has led to greater reliance on technology platforms
Insight and agility will drive client-agency relationships post-lockdown
Transparency is likely to be a hot topic as brands begin to replenish marketing budgets that have been seriously curtailed or frozen in many industries. When funds are released for future project work, it is unlikely budgets forecast at the start of the year will remain intact. Every pound a CMO can put in a budget will have been hard fought for, and agency margins and ROI are going to come under closer inspection than ever before, Roberts believes.
“Although retainers aren’t going to disappear completely, we’re going to see a lot more zero-based budgeting approaches,” he says.
“It’s going to mean agencies have got to be clear about their costs but also be able to show the value they’re bringing. That means a focus on two things: one, your core strengths; and two, measurement.
“With inevitable budget constraints, it sounds counterintuitive for agencies to resist the temptations of other revenue streams outside of their remit on a project, but we should double down on what we’re there to do. This will result in greater value for the client and will be more profitable for the agency.”
Transparency is, of course, a two-way process, and Roberts points out that while it will need agencies to accept budget constraints and focus on measuring the value they deliver, clients will need to be realistic too. As agencies accept more zero-based approaches, brands will need to be aware they cannot expect a full team to be ready and waiting at their behest, as they may have been when the agency was on a healthy retainer.
Clients need big ideas
From a brand marketer’s viewpoint, Boko Inyundo, senior marketing manager for the technology sector at global law firm DLA Piper, agrees transparency and an intensified focus on performance and outcomes are going to be key qualities brands will be considering when buying in marketing and communications expertise from agencies, as and when budgets begin to return, following the impact of Covid-19 worldwide.
As a former agency executive, Inyundo has operated on both sides of the client-agency spectrum. He has two forecasts for how the client-agency relationship may be changed by lockdown. First, the inevitable cuts to anticipated spending will not impact all agencies on a client’s roster evenly. Second, the agencies that can help brands better understand consumers’ changing behaviours after lockdown will nurture the most mutually beneficial relationships with their clients, and so will stand to be less financially impacted than those who try to carry on business as normal.
“I think marketing budgets are going to be constrained by clients trimming down rosters, so, by way of example, where a brand may have been accessing multichannel support from, say, five agencies, this may become just two,” he says.
“The remaining two will then potentially have the opportunity to secure more work and thereby access more budget than before, even though the overall client spend will have gone down. That’s why it’s so important for an agency to have already established that open, transparent relationship built on trust that will make a brand want to work with them going forwards.”
The other leading factors that will shape the relationship are research and big ideas. Inyundo believes brand marketers benefit immensely when external agency input is of high quality and a strategic nature, as it is this that helps to convince an organisation’s board what to do next. While this has always been true, it is even more critical today given that the level of uncertainty and volatility is unprecedented - certainly in many of our, and our customers’, lifetimes.
“Clients are going to need an agency to conduct genuinely immersive proprietary and third-party research that, for example, reveals how consumer buying decisions and patterns are changing post-pandemic,” he says.
“Brand custodians need to see clear evidence as to how things have changed and they need objective and expert support to determine how to most effectively and efficiently respond to any shifting dynamics identified. Clients are going to need big ideas that truly integrate their communications and distil their brand purpose, and agencies should not be afraid to be bullish and make a compelling case for communications deeply influenced by the brand’s ultimate customers’ needs in the ‘new normal’. It’s not going to be a time to be timid.”
Agility is key
One result of the lockdown has been that clients and agency executives have had more time to discuss and get under the skin of a brand, according to Rob Healey, head of brand for Europe at contact lens manufacturer, CooperVision.
With the pressure of daily deadlines eased by the slow-down in activity, he has found more time to focus on the age-old challenge brands have with getting agencies to plan and execute campaigns both on brand and at speed. The pause to reflect and communicate better with one another has been welcomed because, he believes, when “the gun is fired” and campaigns need to be executed quickly, agencies will have effectively already been briefed.
Where the pressure will shift, then, is not so much onto the speed of campaigns, but onto the agility in altering them to ensure they are performing at their optimum level.
“Clients may have previously been under pressure to get campaigns out there without feeling they had the time to fully brief an agency,” he says.
“That should have changed during lockdown and many clients will, like us, have some campaign ideas ready to go. The key now is going to be working with an agency that has a hook on how consumer attitudes have changed and who can help us monitor campaigns.
“Realistically, budgets are going to be tight and they’re going to be about revenue generation to help businesses bring in sales after being inactive for so long. That means brands need agencies that can work out the return on their spend very quickly and then monitor every campaign to make sure it is performing well. If it isn’t, and the messaging and creative needs to be changed, we need to know as soon as possible; far sooner than we would have expected to find out in the past.”
For Healey, then, the future of the relationship is going to be centred on the agency that can work both on-brand and at speed but, crucially, also has the agility to act on metrics. In a time of budgetary constraint, clients need to be assured their agency can spot issues and adapt quickly if a campaign is not delivering the anticipated ROI.
It is clear client marketers are looking for more than just a transparent relationship. As we emerge from lockdown, they expect an agency to provide insight into how consumer behaviour is changing, and come up with the big ideas that will win new business and deliver a measurable return.
If transparency and insights are going to win work as we emerge from lockdown, the agencies that will keep up the momentum and succeed in the longer term are those which can demonstrate to clients they can measure and fine-tune campaigns on the fly.
“Although retainers aren’t going to disappear completely, we’re going to see a lot more zero-based budgeting approaches."
George Roberts, Five by Five