Is your agency an extension of your marketing team or are they just order takers?

By:  Isilumko Activate Business Partner, Andreas Smit

The client agency dynamic is an interesting one – a relationship that needs to be fluid, high energy, transparent and built on trust. Yet so often it’s circumspect and overshadowed by a lack of respect, scepticism and unrealistic expectations. In a world that revolves around things as abstract as brands, perceptions and ideas, and where judgments are largely subjective, relationships are bound to be volatile and even emotionally charged.

I would even go so far as to say that a client’s relationship with its communications team is one of the most complex in the business environment. It requires a substantial level of collaboration from both parties to make it effective and sustainable, especially when the pressure to perform is greater, competition is more acute, budgets are tighter and loyalty is weaker. The client agency dynamic is further complicated by the fact that many brands opt to work with multiple agencies – so everyone has to play nicely and get along – working together for the good of the brand.

Expectations vs Delivery

The majority of my working career has been in FMCG and the Financial Services sectors where I have sat on the client side of the fence. With over 10 years of agency-client engagement experience, I have had the opportunity to sit in plenty of pitches and I was lucky enough to appoint and work with some great partners during this time. Despite their many strengths though – it always felt like something was missing; probably best defined as a disconnect between expectations and delivery. All too often I felt I should be getting more than I actually did. And then it dawned on me. I needed a team who profoundly understood my needs, who grasped the nuances of my category, and could support me in solving big brand problems.

I wanted a team that partnered with me and was in essence an extension of my marketing department. Able to understand and respond to my time pressures, my reporting line frustrations, the continuous changes of briefs and the relentless demands from the business. The agency of my dreams was for all intents and purposes an addition to my brand team – a partner who could strategise with me, execute on my behalf and always had my brand’s best interests at heart. All that coupled with a deep seated sense of trust that I wasn’t just a client the agency could take for a ride (and make massive profit off). This last point is especially true in the new world of Zero-based budgeting.

Agency – Client Disconnect

There is added pressure on today’s brand teams to prove and definitively substantiate their decisions and their investments, and rightly so. Why should business owners allocate hard-earned profits to marketing if there is no guaranteed return on investment? In my former life as the client – this is where I often found a pre-dominant disconnect between agency and client.

As a marketing manager, I was under continuous cost pressure and I had to ensure that every rand and cent I invested gave the business a decent return. Part of this was pushing for measurable metrics that demonstrated that the money we invested with our agency, was turning into leads and sales. While there are many debates about what return really means in marketing, in our case it was usually measured as a Return on Investment (ROI), a Return on Objective (ROO), or a Return on Marketing Investment. The choice really depends on where you are spending and the objective of the spend. And this is where agencies today must transition to become true partners and more valuable to their clients.

Now that my role has reversed and I sit in the seat of the agency, I have the ability to apply these learnings and to ask these same client questions; all the while embracing the notion that getting maximum return on investment for our clients should be the absolute priority. It’s not about what the profit margin is or how much work it will take, or even how we keep the work for ourselves. It’s about adding value and generating returns. This might mean advising the client to revise the strategy. Because at the end of the day, agencies are objective, specialist partners – or at least, that’s what I believe they should be.

My vision for the new world is that all agencies – including our own activations business – put on their marketing director hats when dealing with clients. They need to ask and answer questions like: what’s good for the client’s business, what’s good for the client’s brands, and what the best solution is to deliver on the strategy that will achieve these goals. This is when agencies step out of their business and into that of their clients’. This is where true partnership and collaboration flourishes. Trust is forged and long term value is created.

This is easier said than done though, because like any healthy relationship, it requires investment from both parties. The client will have to be willing to trust its agency with business insights, results, performance and industry trends.

If brands have appointed the right agency, they should become as invested in the success of your business as you are. But this requires that brands bring them along on the journey rather than just supply inadequate briefs that require quick outputs.

I have always believed that an agency should be like your personal marketing director, giving you everything from strategic insight to immediate [yet realistic] turnarounds on projects. The process should be seamless and integrated. This does of course mean delivering clear briefs, fair remuneration and lots of mutual respect and understanding if it’s to be a viable partnership.

About Andreas Smit:

Andreas Smit is a Business Partner at Isilumko Activate – a position he assumed in 2017. A strategic, tactical thinker with a passion for connecting brands and people through meaningful activations that attract and engage the audience – he is well suited for the business of experiential. With seven years at SAB, during which time he worked on the SAB Carling Black Label Champion Cup [one of the world’s biggest through the line marketing campaigns], he mastered the art and science of activations [and alcohol brands]. Today he is responsible for growing the Isilumko Activate business and spends a great deal of his day pitching and pulling in new campaigns and clients for the agency.