The agency-client landscape is fragmenting and increasingly complicated, with the needs of brands at stake for miscommunication between the two. Agencies are making a point of differentiating themselves from competitors through over-specialisation, while at the same time clients have come to expect full-service solutions to their briefs.
A panel at Ad Week Europe, ‘The Evolution of the Brand and Agency Relationship’ composed of clients, agencies and tech providers, discussed that dichotomy, whether there is light at the end of the tunnel, and how collaboration can help solve the complexity problem.
The group noted that between a growing desire for in-housing at clients and the rise of different tech solutions, even setting goals is a increasingly difficult task.
Chris Swarbrick, head of technology at Omnicom argues that clients now expect a data-driven approach that often clashes with the creative approach that agencies are used to bringing to the table:
“Our approach has really been to make sure we are using technology to effectively customise for individual clients. The range of services you can provide to the client, you need to be in a position to dial that up or down depending on the client. [So] another role for the modern agency is helping the client to understand the technology.”
Rather than focus solely on the tech side, managing director for Doddle Kitty Poole believes that a better approach is one that marries the ‘magic and logic’ that characterises the marketing industry:
“Creativity is what gets cut-through in the market, and that’s what I’d go to an agency for… but you need to put it in front of the right people and that’s where you use data. It’s not a science, it’s something more subtle.”
Because of those changing demands, agencies are under pressure to set themselves apart in the marketplace, with Poole explaining that has led to “people going into their silos and specialising in an area”.
Alex Steer, chief product officer at Wavemaker believes that that specialisation has necessarily led to “55 job titles that you never hear anywhere else”. Despite that, he believes that it is practically impossible to put the genie back in the bottle with regards to full service models, and the correct way of thinking about skills within agencies is that ‘big is a collection of smalls’:
“It’s quite hard to design a full-service proposition in a fast-moving world. The right way of thinking about it is ‘modular’. Agencies… still need to have lots of groups of specialists within them. The reason it’s not full-service is that all seems a bit ‘all or nothing’. Actually it’s a much more modular proposition that clients need to access specialisms.”
As a result of those considerations, the panel noted that there is no longer a binary relationship between clients and agencies.
Mending the relationship
Steer explained that while the causes for complexity on the agency side are a consequence of increased competition, agencies have a responsibility to make sure their functions are easily understood by clients:
“The world of a fairly fixed and static relationship that is one of high class outsourcing has already gone away. What that does mean is that they get complicated.”
Poole pointed out that, despite the drive for differentiation from agencies, clients shoulder responsibility for the fragmentation too:
“We’re focusing a lot on agencies… I think clients need to change too. There has been an tendency in the past to just push a lot of the work to the agency, to treat them like a vendor... and not engage with the process at all. Some responsibility does fall on our shoulders too.”
Phil Duffield is managing director for Adobe Advertising Cloud, EMEA Adobe. He was keen to note that due to the speed with which the industry changes, the agency-client relationship is evolving regularly: “Let’s not forget how much our industry changes on a daily basis. You can’t just change overnight. You talk about data and how do we create an omnichannel strategy, that’s very hard for an agency to do. As brands we need to make sure we understand that.”
Despite the issues the panel cited the ongoing work of Mark Read at WPP has a positive approach to making sure clients understand agency needs and vice-versa. Overall, they all felt more optimistic than not about the agency-client relationship.