Agencies New Business How Do You Solve a Problem Like...

How to grow existing client relationships in a shrinking economy


By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

September 6, 2023 | 11 min read

12 industry leaders share their tips on how to keep your agency growing during a slow economy by expanding existing accounts.


Growth doesn’t necessarily have to come from new business / Unsplash

All agencies need business growth, but it doesn’t have to come via a grinding pitch or review. In fact, because they offer agencies a chance to skip a competitive review, expanding your existing client accounts can be a more cost-effective way of increasing agency turnover.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Agency partners that are stuck in ’sell’ mode are going to piss off clients that want them to crack on with the job at hand. And just because your team has nailed one brief doesn’t necessarily prove they’re the right fit for a different portfolio.

To find out the secret to inflating relationships with clients without jeopardizing the work you already have with them, we asked a dozen top agency leaders.

How do you solve a problem like… expanding an existing client relationship?

Zoe Eagle, co-chief, Accenture Song: “It’s crucial to nail your core competency first. Similarly, you should only grow into areas that you can genuinely deliver against, otherwise you risk damaging the relationship overall. The best way to grow an account organically is to know your client’s business inside out. To understand where the greatest pain points are is to also understand where the greatest opportunity for transformation is. Above all else, nurturing the partnership you have with a client will always be the most important investment you make. To do more for a client that you know and love is a huge pleasure, but the invitation to do so will always come off the back of a trusted partnership.”

Charlie Hurrell, chief client officer, House 337: “Agencies need to demonstrate to clients that they continually think about their problems and proactively offer up different forms of expert and credible creative solutions, as opposed to waiting for briefs to respond to. We are fundamentally driven by client problems and how creativity in its widest sense can solve these, not by a desire to sell in further capabilities; clients smell a clumsy cross-sell a mile off. Be alert to opportunities to genuinely drive success for them as this will lead to mutual growth. Clients are also phenomenally busy, so they really value their agency partners being one step ahead.”

Ben Kravitz, group account director, Barbarian: “Clients help agencies they trust and value. I’ve found if you focus on earning trust and proving your value early, often, and clearly, two things happen: one, clients will actively find ways to bring you deeper into their organizations, and two, they’re willing to stake their reputation on recommending you to their peers. Have the emotional intelligence to know when you’ve proven yourself. Once you’ve helped them meet their goals, they’re generally more inclined to help you meet yours. When you’re ready, don’t be shy. Tell them what your agency wants to do and ask them directly for their help.”

lyida simey

Lydia Simey, business director, M&C Saatchi London: “Firstly, ensure that your whole team is consistently delivering your current remit brilliantly. Then, do the following: be visible, not just to your existing clients; meet at their offices; share ideas that they can pass on to colleagues; and reach out to other stakeholders directly, increasing your chances of capitalizing on new opportunities elsewhere in the business. Also, be patient. As tempting as it can be to keep emailing your client about additional work, it’s better to find authentic opportunities to converse – a relevant article sent via WhatsApp, a competitor activation shared via LinkedIn or a convo in person when you pass them in the corridor.”

Robert Willis, chief marketing officer, VCCP New York: “It’s down to being a good agency partner. You’ve got to be in the trenches with your client, know what’s coming up and where you can add value to their business. That might be through changing the needs of the consumer and pre-empting a new channel/specialism required, it could be a surprise and delight if they have to pivot quickly or be honest and look outside to help find a third-party solution.”

Chris Wicks, chief client officer, Brandwidth: “Organic growth can come from a multitude of areas. Additional needs from the client, extension of existing projects, pitching new ideas, or expanding remit outside of your core deliverables. However, it would be impossible without a fundamental part of the client-agency relationship – trust. Often, trust is something agencies take for granted or never truly gain. We have witnessed agencies trying to grow accounts by telling clients what else they need, but we have found being the voice in the room who can also tell your client when they don’t need something builds foundational trust, which in time leads to organic growth.”

trent patterson

Trent Patterson, chief operating officer, Publicis.Poke: “To grow an existing client remit, you need to build a relationship where your client naturally wants to work with you more. This means delivering consistently great thinking and breakthrough creative work, being deeply ingrained in and contributing to their business. Once you have these foundations in place, you will be at the table and in the right conversations where you can advise on the best way to solve an adjacent business challenge as a trusted partner, not a salesperson.”

Owen Lee, chief creative officer, FCB London: “It’s always easier to win organic new business from an existing client than entering a pitch with an entirely new client, in a new sector, against 10 other agencies at chemistry and three or four at final pitch stage. Most intermediaries will tell you that clients usually buy agencies on chemistry, so if that chemistry already exists, then that’s a major hurdle cleared. And that goes for both parties. Clients, as much as agencies, want partners they know they can work with and once trust has been built it’s relatively easy to open up a conversation about how you can help with other business areas. Even if you start with proactive thinking, it’s more cost-efficient than entering a pitch process. Every successful client/agency partnership is based on trust and respect and that is a far more reliable metric than any pitch.”

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Laura Adams, client success and growth director, Oliver: “We believe staying as close to our clients as possible is the key to unlocking growth. Our on-site teams work in client worlds but are connected to the agency so will surprise and delight them with inspiring work from other teams. Our data-fuelled monthly management information packs provide key insights into activity trends with our clients, so we can proactively look at giving them more of what they need at the right time. We hold quarterly business and creative reviews, as well as growth hacks and collaborative planning sessions with our clients twice a year to drive continuous improvement and ultimately growth.”

Jessica Bigio, head of engagement management/executive director, Wolff Olins: “Client growth comes as a natural result of true partnership and shared ambitions. The key is to find ways of immersing yourself and your team in the client’s organization and culture in order to fully understand their vision and the challenges they face. Agency teams who do this are more able to anticipate what their client will need in the long term, which interventions will make the biggest impact and where the agency can add the most value. Ultimately, growing healthy working relationships takes investment on both sides. For agencies, this usually means dedicating extra time to showing clients how they can take on a given challenge, rather than simply telling them they need to address it.”

Caroline Winterton, chief executive officer, Adam&EveDDB New York: “Ultimately growth should and can come from anywhere, especially existing clients. Our job as an agency partner is to see the opportunities for growth for our clients and bring those ideas forward so their business grows and, if we’re lucky, ours will too. The best client-agency relationships are those where you both have skin in the game to make the other successful. Our job should never be to just deliver on the brief, it needs to go beyond. Once you reach that level of partnership coming to the table with proactive ideas should be a natural part of winning together.”

Caroline Foster Kenny, global chief client officer, Wunderman Thompson: “More than 50% of our growth comes from existing clients, which means more than 50% of our growth is coming from really understanding the client’s business needs and challenges. That’s because we’re solving, not selling. By suspending our own agenda and actively listening, we’re able to identify and craft solutions that will help drive growth for our clients’ businesses while unlocking new opportunities for the agency. Ultimately, when we help their businesses grow, we grow – there is a direct correlation.”

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