Agencies: How to Help Clients in a Slow-Growth Economy

An Eight-Step Plan for Agencies to Become Relevant Again

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In a slower global economy, it's difficult to get consumers to open their wallets to spend. Clients need help achieving business growth, but many of them are not getting the answers they need from their agency partners.

A recent CMO Council survey on "The State of Marketing 2014" found that only 12% of marketers rate the contributions of their agency partners as "extremely valuable," and 66% are planning to make one or more changes to their agency rosters in the next 12 months. Lack of business results, value-added thinking and inspired creative top the list of reasons for these changes.

Clients are looking for answers, and agencies need to find ways to be relevant again. That means being prepared to make some serious changes. We've come up with an eight-step plan:

1. Stop blaming others. Advertising agencies are unhappy. Workers are disgruntled, and the industry itself is looking for others to blame -- such as media owners or agencies' own clients -- for forcing them to do more for less. It's almost as if there's a naïve hope that things are going to return to what they once were, rather than an acceptance and embrace of the current reality as the "new normal." This is the world clients are already living in -- why should ad agencies be any different?

2. Bring order to chaos. In an accelerating world obsessed with the new, it's very easy to get lost. It's certainly essential to keep a constant eye on technology and culture, but there's a huge opportunity to go beyond "finding and reporting" to providing perspective and insight based on experience. It's comparable to the difference between the reactionary response of a single tweet and the perspective provided by an article in The Economist.

3. Celebrate success but get noticed by the right people. Coming out of this year's 4A's Strategy Festival, we know there's great thinking and great work that's driving results for clients. For example, the Grand Prix winner, British Airways' "Visit Mum" campaign by OgilvyOne, drove more than a 3% share gain for the airline in just four months. But the agency industry needs to break the cycle of talking to itself in its own language and connect to the broader world of business.

4. Put business results at the heart of everything you do. It's easy to throw around phrases like "return on investment" and "data analytics" and to believe that things like brand-tracking studies with awareness and perception measures are the most important things for clients. But those holding the purse strings inside companies only care about one thing: How can what you do make the company money?

Having a business-first mindset will help change the perception among clients that agencies just want to sell ads and are therefore a cost rather than an investment. Clients must believe agencies know how to help them grow and make more money.

5. Use your objectivity and expertise. Agencies sit in a privileged position: They are companies, but they somehow sit outside of the corporate world. That allows them to see the world in the broadest sense and to not become blinded by the myopia of a single category. And in a world of corporate silos, as an outside agency you have the opportunity to break down these insular silos -- and to unify them.

6. Ask tough questions. For agencies to provide any value and to be seen as important, they've got to be brave and provocative. They have to become masters of tough questions because that's the way to understand and uncover the things that really matter.

The big opportunity for agencies is to help frame the problem correctly for their clients, who may not have spent the time to consider what the problem is from multiple perspectives.

7. Disrupt your processes. We all know digital is more important than ever, but digital alone is not the answer. It's no longer possible to blindly believe that the same rules that applied to the advertising business five and 10 years ago apply today. They don't, and they have to be reinvented to deliver the new levels of agility that clients require.

8. Recognize that your product is creative bravery. Clients are desperate for ideas that can drive their business forward, but the important thing to consider is that most organizations aren't set up to generate these ideas themselves. They look to the outside to bring the "magic" to the table. It's the agency's job to provide the "wow," but to get to this they have to be brave enough to bring ideas that challenge convention and the status quo.

Bravery is the only way to make sure that we get to exceptional creative thinking and ideas that are powerful enough to move business.

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