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2013 Opinion Issue

Three Strategies to Improve Agency-Client Relationships in '14

4A's CEO Nancy Hill Prioritizes Talent, New-Business Practices and Creating Fair Value

By Published on . 2

This hasn't been the most harmonious year in Adland. Tales of procurement pressures, extended payment terms and the lingering agency-talent crunch have filled Ad Age's headlines over the past 12 months. So we asked Nancy Hill for her take on what agencies should prioritize in the coming year.

Rethink your approach to talent
Survey after survey tells us that employees under 35 are largely unhappy. Not because we don't pay them enough (although starting salaries are still an issue), but because they want to contribute and we're not letting them. We have to realize that millennials have been creating content for most of their lives. Be it videos, photos, song lyrics or drawings, they are used to sharing and receiving immediate feedback. Agency structures don't encourage or celebrate that kind of contribution from the start.

We must change that. Hiring the best and brightest isn't enough if we relegate them to spreadsheets and menial labor. Yes, we all had to pay our dues. The difference is that they have other options. Options that allow their sharing mentality to flourish. Options with a more glamorous reputation. Options that seem to remunerate at higher levels.

We have been working with young people through our Rising Stars program. We talk to them. We listen to them. They surprise us. They inspire us. They light a fire under us. Their enthusiasm is contagious, and their naivete is only glaring when they challenge the status quo. Every once in a while we have to remind them that "anything is possible, everything is not." Wouldn't you rather pull someone back than constantly ask why they don't speak up? If you ask why they have been so giving of their time to industry efforts, they will tell you it's because they care. It's because they feel like they can make a difference. Harness that or lose them.

Alter new-business processes
Agency search and selection has always been integral to our growth. But the process is time consuming for marketers and costly for agencies. Most marketing leaders are frustrated by the mating (dating) ritual. So how can we improve it?

Stop ambulance chasing. An agency leader once said to me, "We have to be careful what we eat," meaning we should be more selective about accounts we pursue. Desperate agencies will do desperate things. Best-in-class agencies are disciplined and rigorously screen opportunities. Those that have the most consistent record of new-business success have management buy-in to develop and adhere to screening guidelines.

Agencies can dramatically increase new-business by learning to be more selective with new-client opportunities. The 4A's Opportunity Screening Criteria guidance advises that just as clients screen agencies to find the best fit, so should agencies screen clients.

Marketers must also do their homework. Before embarking on an agency review they should step a d begin by assessing their own marketing organization. Once internal enhancements are in-place, then -- if new or expanded agency resources are a priority -- they can invest the time and apply the discipline needed to conduct a rigorous search and selection process.

We continually hear about RFPs from hell and marketers trolling for ideas. It's time to stop counterproductive tactics. The ANA and 4A's have partnered to develop prudent Guidelines for Agency Search and fundamental Agency Selection Briefing Guidance tools. Let's use them and save ourselves a lot of blood, sweat and tears.

Create a fair value exchange
Some compensation arrangements purport to drive efficiency into the client-agency relationship. The problem is that all the procurement benchmarks are largely based on old information. "Working" and "non-working" ratios based on old-media models are no longer relevant in social media and other sharing platforms. Master service agreements that have agencies indemnifying clients against patent assertions are turning us into insurance companies. And extended payment terms that ask agencies to wait 75, 90 or (ridiculously) 120 days put us in the position of acting like a bank.

We have to work harder to show value to clients. Agencies must generate ideas in new ways. Sometimes that's an ad, sometimes a platform and ever more frequently, a new way to look at what a client sells and how they sell it. We used to do this as a course of business, but we've gotten away from it and we need to return to this practice.

We must constantly prove our worth in ways that go above and beyond delivery of scope and drive for results that make a difference in a brand's destiny. Standing up for what we believe in will go a lot farther than caving. The letters "N" and "o" form a word, and we need to know when to use them together.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nancy Hill is 4A's CEO.

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