ANA survey: Client-agency relations strong

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A majority of marketers say their ad agencies are meeting or exceeding their expectations, although there is room for improvement in some areas, according to a survey that will be released Thursday at the Association of National Advertisers' Agency Relations Forum in New York.

The ANA survey of 110 members found that 76% of marketers believe their lead strategic and creative agencies were meeting their expectations, while 18% said their agencies were exceeding expectations. Only 6% said agencies were not meeting expectations.

When asked to describe the status of the relationship with their lead strategic and creative agency now versus a year ago, 60% said it was about the same, 35% said it was better, and only 5% said it was worse.

The ANA also asked members to rate their agencies on various services they provide.

Marketers were most satisfied with their agencies in the areas of creativity, with 92% stating that their shops met or exceeded expectations, and account management, with 88% agreeing that their agencies met or exceeded expectations.

Areas that didn't rank as high were the ability to handle or add new services (71% met or exceeded expectations) and providing operating efficiencies that helped result in client cost savings (69% met or exceeded expectations).

When asked which client attributes were absolutely critical in getting great work from their agencies, 82% said good, clear direction; 49% said sharing important information; and 47% said getting the right level of client personnel involved in the process.

"I think the client really needs an independent partner to take an objective perspective on the client's marketing," said Bob Liodice, president-CEO of the ANA. "The agency really is in the best position to make that happen."

However, he said, "If you think about any business or industry over the last 10 years—steel, travel, automotive—they have had to go through dramatic changes in order to keep current with customer demands. The agency business is in the same boat, restructuring and adding services."

"It's a dramatic new advertising and communications world," Liodice added: "You can't hold on to what is in the past; you have to step out in front of the curve."

Indeed, marketers and agencies say the ability to adapt to the changing marketing environment while maintaining trust is one of the keys to a successful relationship.

"It is a fast-moving world," said Deirdre Bigley, VP-worldwide advertising for IBM's corporate marketing group. "The agency has to come along with us and understand there will constantly be change. Trust is a big part of that."

IBM has worked with Ogilvy & Mather, New York, as its agency of record for the past 11 years, during a time when IBM evolved from a pure technology company to one that provides business and technology services.

"Ogilvy has been great in understanding our brand and the market, and keeping us with the times," Bigley said.

Ogilvy constantly challenges IBM to try new approaches, she said. For example, its "Help Desk" campaign running this year is a big change for IBM because it positions the company as one that is helping the world instead of just helping businesses.

Ogilvy also challenges IBM to try new interactive approaches, such as using podcasts during the U.S. Open to broadcast scores and show IBM technology in action.

"It is like a great marriage," Bigley said. "We have grown together and we have made changes together. They know our brand as well as we do."

Chris Wall, senior partner and co-creative director at Ogilvy & Mather, New York, said one of the most important attributes in a strong agency-client relationship is honesty. "With IBM, we have been allowed to be honest, and they have been honest with us," he said. "The problem agencies get into is the fear that if they're honest, clients will either fire them or not buy what they're asking them to do."

Wall also said that having consistency is important, particularly with account management. The average tenure of agency people working on the IBM account is five years. Wall has been on the account for nine years.

With so many high-profile account changes and reviews opened recently, including Intel, AMD, Sun Microsystems, Bank of America and Office Depot, long-standing agency relationships are becoming harder to find.

One of the longer relationships is a partnership between Dow Chemical Co. and Alexander Marketing Services, Grand Rapids, Mich. Alexander has served as agency of record for Dow's chemical division for 25 years.

"[Alexander Marketing President] Bob Milroy and his organization really proved to me that they wanted to be students of my business," said Jean Aukerman, global brand manager for Dow Fiber Solutions and previously global marketing communications manager for Dow's chemical business. "They care about the nuts and bolts of our business today and where it is going," she said.

Milroy said a key ingredient to strong client-agency relationships is the consistency of employees working on the account. Two of the four account supervisors working on the Dow account have been on the account for more than 20 years.

"While continuity of client service is very key, hand in hand is intimately understanding and knowing their business," Milroy said.

The agency hires people with strong technical and business backgrounds in addition to agency experience, he said.

Milroy said one of the downsides to a long-standing relationship is the risk of complacency.

"The new people coming in don't know you from Adam. It can actually hurt you if you have been there forever," he said. "You have to internally challenge yourselves to avoid complacency."

With this in mind, Alexander has established internal review processes and benchmarking standards for its work. "Even 30-plus years later, we never take the client for granted," he said.

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