How to Avoid Being the Incumbent in a Review

Six Strategies for Agencies to Keep Relationships with Clients

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Does anyone really want to be the incumbent in a review? From less-than-encouraging statistics around how often incumbents win to the no-defend policies held by many of the industry's leading shops, I think it's safe to assume that the role of incumbent is not one most agencies aspire to play.

That said, when an agency does choose to defend an account, it typically comes to play -- often surprising the client with new, fresh ideas. I've managed searches for over 15 years and have heard countless clients remark during their incumbent's presentation, "I didn't know they did that. Did you know they did that? How come they didn't do that for us?"

In many cases, an incumbent agency does have the strategic thinking, creative chops and capabilities that a client wants and needs. But if the client is hearing about these for seemingly the first time in a review, it's often too late. The account may still move elsewhere, particularly if the relationship has become strained and issues seem irreparable.

So how can agencies and clients promote the health and longevity of a relationship during the relationship, keeping an agency out of the precarious position of incumbent, and saving the client a potentially premature, costly review? Here are a few strategies:

1. Create trusted partnerships at the senior level. Many clients and agencies spend all of their time and energy entrenched in the day-to-day, solely focused on getting the work out the door. Understandable. However, you must make it a priority for your agency's senior leadership to create (and make time for) trusted, strategic counsel with your client's leadership. It is the only way new, innovative thinking will see the light of day.

2. Present ideas outside of your scope (without selling). Agencies need to make money. But if the focus on margins and managing to the scope supersedes any opportunity to present new ideas, other agencies will be happy to come along and present their strokes of genius to your client. One barrier here is that clients do not like being sold to, so presentation is key. If your assignment is to develop broadcast creative for your retail client, answer that assignment first. However, if you know the challenge is also perfectly suited for digital, show how the campaign could extend to other channels. When done in the right way, presenting work and strategies outside of your contract will keep the partnership invigorated on both sides.

3. Share agency work. As review consultants, we receive quarterly and biannual updates of agencies' work, but not every agency does this with its clients. Don't shy away from sharing a breakthrough campaign or a new capability for another client. Just be sure to explain why it's relevant to your client's business (or why it's not).

4. Share agency news. A senior account person should be able to share broader agency news with the client, particularly the comings and goings of key personnel. You want your client to hear from you that the head of digital is leaving, not from the press.

5. Help define what innovation means. I can't tell you how often the word "innovation" comes up in agency searches. All clients want innovation from their agencies. However, defining it isn't easy. From ordering pizzas with emojis to changing the conversation around what "like a girl" means, innovation comes in many forms. This is where sharing examples from other clients can help, particularly when it comes to illustrating capabilities or strategies that your client might not be tapping into, but really should be.

6. Make room for new. So the agency's sharing relevant work and presenting new ideas where appropriate, so we're all good? Not necessarily. One of the biggest frustrations we hear from agencies is that they try to bring new ideas, but the client isn't hearing them. Then, clients will assert that one of the reasons they put an account into review is from a lack of new thinking on the agency's part. Clearly something is amiss.

The only way to keep this schism from continuing is to acknowledge it. Talk about it. Schedule quarterly or biannual brainstorms. Maybe they're about new creative or media or channels, or all of the above. Perhaps you put an agency management process in place, where the relationship and investment aspects of the partnership are vetted on a regular basis. The point is, everyone needs to be committed to open communication and making room for new.

Disrupting the cycle of hamster-wheel partnerships is tough. But, as an agency, figuring out ways to show your client what you can do, and more importantly, what you can do for their business, just might keep you out of the incumbent spot. And, as a client, if you make room for your agency's ideas during the relationship, you'll never be surprised by what they can bring to the table during a review. Be surprised before. It's much better.