Is the old agency model dead?

A question posed in PRWeek this week as agency GolinHarris took over the publication with several pages given over to analysis of their new agency structure.

Much was made of their decision to demolish the traditional structure and replace accepted roles with a four pillared approach based on strategist, creator, catalyst and connector specialists instead of generalists.

But is it a clever PR stunt or something deeper? A comment perhaps on the evolving demands placed on the consultancy sector or the often bloated nature of the agencies that work within it and their need to drive efficiency?

Whichever side you come down on,  it provoked lots  of industry heavyweights, and some lightweights too, into offering their perspective.

What their move has done is recognise the growing role and significance of digital and social media in the marketing mix. And it gives a mid-sized PR agency the opportunity the take on specialist PR, advertising, media and digital agencies in an increasingly divergent operating environment.

Scale is a factor and this is the reason most agencies are structured the way the are. Clients invariably prefer a single point of contact as this reduces the communications flow to a more manageable level. It will be interesting to see if other agencies follow suit.

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Ten ways to get the most from your clients

My recent post citing ten ways to get the most from your agency stirred up some mixed emotions when discussed on the blog, in Linkedin groups, on Twitter and further afield.

The emphasis was placed on clients knowing what they wanted to achieve from their marketing efforts, providing communicative briefs outlining their requirements, working with and viewing the agency as a collaborative and long term partner. Otherwise, the relationship was doomed to failure.

Whilst I think this is reasonable, I wanted to provide some balance as agencies don’t always do their fair share of relationship nurturing.

The key learning from this tandem blog seems to be in an upfront clarification of roles and responsibilities, the communication and understanding of expectations and the establishment of robust, and reasonable reporting processes.

I’d be interested in your feedback once you’ve had time to review. Here goes:

1. Effort. From the outset, agree the degree of effort to be expended on a pitch, try and build a rapport and then if you win it, don’t try and include the charge in your billings. Unfortunately, agencies need to accept that pitching is still part and parcel of the gig.

2. The team. In pitches, introduce the team that will work on the account, not the agency big hitters who will win it and pass it on. You want to build a long term relationship, rooted in chemistry.

3. Show some management love. But don’t keep all the big hitters away from it either. Show some love when clients come to town. Be interested in meetings, their news and developments, and encourage a review of deliverables and the working relationship at regular intervals.

4. Work strategically if given the remit to. Clients should know what they want and where they want to get to. Agencies can work strategically in terms of integrating tactics and aligning them to commercial goals but too many agencies see their role as defining the business strategy, which in my view shouldn’t be the case.

5. Know when to push. There is often a prioritisation taking place and as long as you are seen to have been doing your job, it can’t be held against you if you are seeking a decision but for whatever reason it isn’t forthcoming.

6. Know when to sell. This means understanding your client’s budgeting cycle and pitching new ideas accordingly. There is simply no point doing it mid year if the budget is set.

7. Accept price negotiation. Budgets for most client marketers have declined if not stayed the same. Accept that your pricing will be scrutinized and be prepared to defend it. Value is one argument but costs should be as transparent and in line with the going rate for the work. If you can’t explain why you are worth £20 or £200 an hour, you probably aren’t.

8. Add value. To build your profile as a trusted adviser, occasionally share interesting or potentially relevant news stories, polls etc you may come across in your work for other clients. Don’t badge it as selling, just as taking a broader business view and taking in stimuli from other sectors.

9. Add more value. Simplify status reports, annual plans and minimise the flow of communication to daily emails or calls if it can help get quick decisions made. Run immersion sessions to help clients get up to speed in particular areas, and support new members of the client team with familiarisation days in the agency.

10. Above all, be aware of other pressures. Agencies, particularly account handlers, need to understand that they only see the thin end of the wedge when it comes to the pressure on a client. We represent a fraction of their responsibilities and sometimes clients aren’t able to respond as quickly as we might like.

Think about how you deal with your suppliers, screen their calls when not convenient and so on. Sometimes it is just part and parcel of effective time management.

Thoughts?

Image: Tecaffect

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10 ways to get the most from your agency

With budgets stripped back significantly in most sectors in 2011, marketing departments increasingly have to achieve more from less.

Companies use creative, digital, PR, event and other specialist agencies to help deliver innovative, lead generating marketing campaigns. But often these working relationships are fractious and doomed to failure because time hasn’t been taken to crystallize expectations, processes and procedures.

If you really want to foster a partner relationship with an agency, you need to create an environment and provide the resource and information to give the relationship the best chance of success.

Selecting and working with an agency doesn't have to be a leap of faith

Borne from experience, here is a top ten countdown of where to focus to drive improved collective performance.

1. Know what you want. Provide a written brief. There is no other way of definitively marshalling your thoughts. If you can’t, you have no right to expect an agency to deliver.

2. Run a pitch only if you have the work to award. Too many companies use the pitch process inappropriately either for self aggrandizement or to generate ideas that the in-house team can then implement. Worse still, pitches are used when the scope of business is not in proportion to the investment on the part of the agency.

3. Value their expertise. Just like you in your chosen marketplace, good agencies have honed their service offering, often have good contacts and have worked to develop enduring third party supply relationships to offer a full service.

4. Respect ‘the going rate’. Consequently, there is a financial value of investing that time to ensure your business is competently and diligently supported. Focusing too much on the price risks your credibility in the negotiation and your reputation in the longer term.

5. Commit. Sign NDAs and contracts and then ‘open up’.  Formalise the working procedure and then forget about them. Host the agency at your offices and lead immersion sessions to bring them up to speed. Few will understand your business and market better than you – despite their lofty claims.

6. Agree deliverables and metrics at the outset. Working towards commonly agreed goals and set objectives makes it easier to measure effectiveness after the event.

7. Nominate ‘go-to’ contacts who are always available to input, feedback comment, recommend and cajole client side contacts to get things to get done.

8. Build socializing time into your relationship. Teams that enjoy downtime together are more likely to work better.

9. Encourage and reward creative thinking.

10. Feedback on performance… and take agency feedback to improve the relationship.

Image: www.euphoriasmoothies.com

Excellent client service

Agencies sometimes get the concept of client service confused with maximising client profitability. They are linked from the perspective that happy clients are often spending clients but a good client service strategy shouldn’t unduly impinge or impact on your client relationship.

Clients can be confused and concerned about sudden changes in agreements, retainers, rates and personel so minimise any risk by putting in place a client service plan and then deliver against it.

1. Introduce Standard Agreements / Service Level Agreements for all new clients only, and roll them out gradually to existing clients of a certain size. SLAs are different to contracts (unless a retainer is involved) as they should talk more about service, responsiveness, policy and process.
2. Create tailored KPIs for each client (internal KPIs for the agency as well as KPIs you can share with the client to demonstrate your superior focus on measurement and their ROI). See my post in Principles on KPIs.
3. Create and then review a rate card of staff rates and include a transparent discount structure based on specific and quantifiable volume of work.
4. Evaluate and continually re-evaluate each client’s pricing based on the previous and predicted levels of support.
5. Produce rolling annualised internal plans, linking in to deliverable KPIs, with a quarterly focus.
6. Agree status reporting intervals and level of telephone and face to face contact with each client.
7. Provide transparent financial reporting and regular billing intervals. This helps to create more frequent billing where appropriate (to aid cash flow). Ensure invoices link to quotes and have all the right information to be quickly processed.
8. Working on a retainer basis provide long term security but often on reduced rates. Decide if retainers can work in your business and migrate larger clients to them.
9. Develop client optimisation plans (internal documents highlighting opportunity areas for each client) with the express aim of locking them in with additional and previously unused services.
10. Install effective, regular and added value customer relationship management with all clients & prospects (can be as simple or complicated as you choose).
11. Create a referral reward scheme and encourage referrals (this is the easiest way to secure new business).
12. Encourage trial & take up by providing a limited number of taster workshops, white papers, meetings.
13. Provide proactive reiews of clients, their business and challenges once a year.
14. Put in place a rigorous client feedback process right from first project, to six month and twelve month reviews, compiled in advance on both sides and discussed face-to-face.
15. Overhaul your website – bring in external support (most agencies are poor at managing their own site), add a client login area, add a blog that anyone can post to, and use social media to provide and promote incoming links.
Some small, some large, most relevant and at the heart of delivering excellent client service in the information age.

Have you seen this man?

I’m sure he’s a lovely guy, but if this man appears in your marketing collateral, change it immediately.

He is one of the most overused portraits drawn from a well known internet image provider and represents a very lazy approach to creative marketing.

People with a good grasp of either marketing, design, business or advertising will recognise him straight away and you will be found out, your marketing investment wasted.

Lesson: Dare to be different. Your customers are dealing with you, not him.

We’re all the solution

If everyone provides the solution, who causes the problem?

Companies win and lose business from each other every day. Clients switch agencies regularly.

Sometimes borne from the need to systematically review performance, reduce cost, drive efficiency; sometimes because they are new in the role or the company and want to make their mark; sometimes they are seduced plain and simple by a shiny new idea, dazzling new method or a charming agency business developer.

Fact is we’re all trying to be the one that is noticed, the one that is not replaced. But the old maxim ‘you’re only as good as your last job’ holds true. The new economy means you are dispensable.

Everyone is a solution for someone. But was your last job your best job…? If not, and you’re living on past victories, beware, they could be your last.

Principles of marketing 14: How to be a good client

As a marketer, there will be times when you’ll need to engage suppliers. Don’t sully your personal or company reputation by being a bad client.

As Seth Godin wrote on his blog http://sethgodin.typepad.com/sethsblog on 2 December, a client’s job is to foster innovation but not actually be innovative.

There is indeed a big difference between the two. Here’s my take on how to be a good client from fifteen years experience of working with good, bad and indifferent ones:

1. Write down what you want. Agency partners will go the extra mile for clients that are fair and know what they want. Don’t expect your agency to fathom what you want from a sketchy brief. This results in unclear ground, unchecked expectations and problems in your relationship.

2. Review and dumb down what you want, so what you get is categorically what you want. Nobody wants to spend time working on the wrong thing.

3. Make yourself available. Don’t assume you’ve done your bit in briefing. Good partners will have a ton of questions regardless of how thorough you think your brief is – and you should encourage it and answer them all.

4. Hire someone with a track record. If you can’t settle on one, select two but do the decent thing and give them both a paying gig so they have something to invest in. You’ll get better end deliverable. Agencies rightly despise pitches as a necessary evil giving time/resource and creative ideas away for free with no guarantee and no protection of their intellectual property.

5. Be prepared to pay the going rate, or a rate relative to the service, resource and value on offer.

6. Don’t make unreasonable ‘creatively stifling’ demands on your agency partner. Remember why you are outsourcing this specialist requirement in the first place.

7. Celebrate milestones throughout the course of the project and don’t just wait for the end result. Doing this brings the team closer together and encourages everyone to work harder and smarter.

8. Manage the internal communication of what you are doing externally. This ensures everyone from your sales teams right the way to the guys who answer the phones and make deliveries understand who you are, what you stand for and what you are trying to communicate. Too many companies fall at this critical hurdle.

9. Support your agency with recommendations, testimonials and referrals if they have done an excellent job for your brand, and personally for you. All good agencies work on the maxim of only being as good as their last job so this is very important to them.

10. Above all, be positive and enjoy what you’re creating.