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Succession planning: can agencies provide client continuity and a fulfilling career?

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By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

February 1, 2023 | 11 min read

In their quest for continuity, agencies often struggle to balance the needs of clients and staff. VMLY&R, Weber Shandwick and others have found that embracing change can help keep everybody happy.

Jeremy Strong and Brian Cox in Succession

How can agencies create succession plans that please both clients and staff? / Photograph by Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

Long-standing relationships between brands and their marketing agencies are personal relationships. CMOs and brand marketers work closely with their agency counterparts, sometimes for many years at a time. A single person’s departure can destabilize an entire business relationship.

However, the imperative for agencies to keep team turnover low can contrast with good personnel management. Individual staffers – from interns all the way up to the executive suite – want to be in control of their careers, experience variety on the job and move up to the next level when the time comes. Companies that can provide that will ensure staff spend longer with them, reducing the time and money they’d otherwise spend on hiring a replacement.

“As an industry, we panic about continuity because we think clients don’t like change,” says Gerry Williams, head of brands on VMLY&R Commerce’s British American Tobacco (BAT) account. It’s a big team, with around 130 staffers spread across London, Madrid and Hamburg – and, naturally, it experiences churn over time. But, Williams argues, agencies can provide staff with a fulfilling career without fearing retribution from their clients.

“People aren’t going to work on the same thing forever. Our clients don’t – they change jobs and roles and add structures all the time, and we adapt and move on.” He says agencies should “overcome the fear” of telling clients that there is change. “Out of change comes something new and exciting.”

Flexible approach

At VMLY&R, Williams’s team are given opportunities to work on other accounts for temporary periods. The practice helps to circulate knowledge and good practices across the business while providing staff variety and a chance to recharge.

“If there’s going to be 26 projects on a brand each year, you don’t have to do all of them. If somebody who’s working on one account doesn’t have to do that project and can go and work on Coca-Cola for a week or a pitch for two weeks, why not?”

Such practices, he says, can also defuse some of the intra-agency rivalries that come with big accounts: “When you work on a massive piece of business, quite often you feel only aligned to that. People can end up feeling a little bit disenfranchised.”

Williams himself worked on a pitch for a new client over the last two months, something that he says gave him “some freshness“. “It was incredible to think of something else for a couple of hours each day.”

When planned in advance, bringing in specialist teams from elsewhere in a business can also help, he adds. A recent project saw VMLY&R’s crack Polish CX team brought in on a DTC project, providing a level of expertise unavailable to the regular brand team while taking some of the pressure off of that small group.

Williams hopes that by increasing internal traffic on brand teams, he can create a more fulfilling work environment – and add value for the client. “I am trying to think this year how we open that up a bit more and how it can lead to people feeling part of the wider agency team.”

At IPG creative and comms agency Weber Shandwick, UK chief executive officer Helen Bennett says it can help to put a range of faces in front of clients; they benefit from a plurality of thought and talent.

Although there’s still a need to make sure staff working for long periods of time on a client have enough reasons to stick around and that “stewardship” roles are seen as “really attractive career paths,” mixing things up reduces the chance of losing institutional knowledge if any one person moves on, she says.

The company recently debuted a program called Access All Areas, which enables staff to move between accounts if they think they might be better suited to a specific project. “You can move around the network quite seamlessly if there is an opportunity that interests you,” explains Dylan Davenport, the Weber Shandwick UK executive vice-president of brand. “It’s critical to keep you as part of the family, to demonstrate that your career progress is front of our minds and to build those opportunities for growth. It’s instrumental in keeping people engaged.”

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Chicago agency Fusion92 has a cluster of clients it has worked with for over five years, including Bosch, Staples and Publix. According to founder and chief executive Matt Murphy, it employs a range of strategies to “ensure client continuity” while giving it “the flexibility to accommodate personal growth”.

To avoid losing total breaks in the client-agency relationship, or risk losing institutional knowledge, there are three staffers rather than just one operating as the immediate contact of any given client. A “shared” approach means that most employees aren’t corralled on to a single client for years at a time.

Murphy says: “When our team has a variety of experiences from different clients, it allows them to bring better ideas and solutions to the table. Our clients benefit from our growing stable of A-team players and it gives our team members the variety they are looking for.”

Breaking the news

While these solutions might help ease tension within teams, agencies also need a defined response ready for when change does occur, either at the agency’s instigation or because an employee has decided to move on.

“There’s always a spider’s web of connectivity within a team,” says Williams. “If somebody is at the heart of a team but needs to move on, you need careful management of the people around them and to communicate at the right time.”

Despite the pressure to provide continuity, he advises against hiring a like-for-like replacement after a colleague has left. “I think it’s an opportunity to do something a little different, to structure differently or create two roles where there was one.”

Communication with clients, too, must be managed carefully. Murphy advises directness, transparency and the importance of planning. “You must hit it head-on and be completely transparent with your client. This is critical. Just as important is having an internal process for how you are going to manage an account team transition, who is going to contact the client and how, as well as when will it will be done and what the solution is that’s ready to roll.

“Our clients consider our team members as extensions of their own internal teams; that’s why it is important to get this right.”

Getting clients involved

At smaller agencies, such measures aren’t always viable. Bristol SEO and PPC agency Loom Digital caters to a clientele of regional brands such as dampproofing company Permagard, which the company has worked with since it was founded 13 years ago. Founder Nikki Ellison say: “Team retention is vital for us. Balancing client and team retention goes hand in hand.”

She says that consulting clients on key personnel decisions can help solve the puzzle. “We get client feedback in advance. For example, we’ve had changes where people have gone on maternity leave and have needed to hand over the client’s account to somebody and we’ve consulted with the client.”

Not every client will want to have their time taken up by an agency’s personnel travails, but Murphy says it’s worth offering them the chance to get involved just the same. “On key accounts or with key roles, we almost always offer the client to be involved in the decision of selecting a new team member if we don’t have someone already lined up. While most clients don’t take us up on the offer, they appreciate being consulted and having their opinions valued.”

Agencies that don’t extend such offers to clients undermine their claim to being partners of that business and “run the risk of being just a supplier,” says Bennett. “Our best client relationships are when the team is seen as an extension of their team and. therefore, they feel invested and trusted.”

At VMLY&R, Williams concludes that managing team succession effectively can help create a healthier client relationship overall. “There are certain clients who don’t like their superstars moving; they don’t ever want to see the best people move off their brand because that’s a disaster. But we had a client come in and talk to us about this and he said, ’As long as you manage me through that change I won’t be scared of it – I trust you as my partner to get it right.’”

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