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UK Digital Agency Census: what makes a good agency partner in a pandemic?

What do clients want from their agencies in 2021? And how do the best agencies give it to them? We ask the agencies ranked highly for client satisfaction in The Drum’s UK Digital Agency Census to spill their secrets.

Between Zoom briefings interrupted by nosey pets (and noisier children) and pitches conducted from the kitchen table, maintaining the client-agency relationship at time when face-to-face meetings are impossible is tricky.

As well as restricted communications, agencies are also having to contend with sustained cuts to ad spend and jittery marketers who are themselves trying to navigate an ever-shifting set of consumer habits amid the pandemic.

So just how do you keep clients happy the new normal? If anyone should know, it’s the agencies that came out on top for client satisfaction in The Drum’s annual UK Digital Agency Census. As part of the research, we asked clients to rank their agencies across a number of measures including value for money, quality of work and whether they would recommend their agency to other marketers.

Here, we ask the most highly thought of agencies among clients to spill their secret sauce on how they’ve kept relationships thriving in lockdown.

Build conscious partnerships

Manchester-based Soap Media came as the top ranked agency for clients in this year’s census. For chief executive officer Markerle Davis, a big part of keeping clients happy in the current choppy waters has been to ensure the relationship is a true partnership.

“We bill ourselves as integral components of our partner’s business efforts,” he explains, saying the agency doesn’t just pitch itself as an external agency, but an extension of the client.

“That level of involvement goes a long way to building positive relationships. And every decision we make is directed back to the question: “Do we think this will maximize our partner’s results?”

He admits this often involves asking challenging questions, beginning as early as the discovery or chemistry calls.

“We identify early on how reciprocal a company is to this way of working, and this process sets the tone for the working relationship – the intensity of our duty of care is a consistently reassuring factor for clients.”

Be reactive and responsive

Mischa Weston-Green, co-founder and managing director at SEO and PPC agency Transcend Marketing, says one challenge she’s observed amid Covid-19 has been a demand from clients for more regular reporting and updates in light of constant, short-term changes.

This, she observes, has been especially important for clients operating in multiple global regions because the socio-economic response to the virus has varied significantly from country to country.

“As the Covid-19 landscape can change very quickly we’ve noticed more occasions where we’ve had to be immediately reactive to changing messaging on paid campaigns or even setup new campaigns to cater for the brief,” Green explains.

“We’ve got a good reputation for this anyway, so it wasn’t a sock to the system,” she adds, saying the business has added new members of staff to its team to meet these demands and been flexible with existing accounts.

“We allowed clients to pause activity and retainers at short-notice as we don’t have rolling monthly contracts with all clients with the premise being we don’t lock clients in to long contracts as we like our results to do the talking,” she says.

Daniel Andrews, chief executive and founder of social agency The Tree, agrees that being adaptable with contracts and requirements has kept a smile on clients’ faces in lockdown.

“Whilst retainers have seen us through, they can also feel claustrophobic to a client. Showing our confidence in ourselves and giving our clients flexibility has made us think differently and redefine the relationship between time and resources,” he says.

Green advises that, even though everything is virtual right now, regular contact is key to understanding any client’s current position. She says her own agency keeps a close rapport daily with clients, which enables it to tune into the ever-changing needs of its roster.

Keep the human touch

For Andrews’ part, his team has grown by over 60% in over the past 12 months and he believes The Tree team has showcased its value to clients by showing humanity and kindness despite everyone going through their own personal struggles.

“We’ve come up with ideas and shown positivity,” he says, “and we’ve carried out our responsibilities to our clients, regardless of what’s going on around us.”

A major travel client of the digital shop, which had been hit badly by the pandemic, said the agency had been a “ray of light” at a very hard time.

Simply put, we’ve continued to put our clients first,” the chief exec explains.

After the pandemic is over, Andrews is clear that The Tree will continue to evolve how it works with clients to keep them sweet and build better strategies for post-pandemic future.

Very quickly, the agency has found itself in the position of ’gatekeeper’ for social media policy for large scale multinationals. Going forward, it wants to tailor its offering to consult on acceptable social media use, becoming a voice and go-to partner on social media ethics and progress.

“We are strengthening our focus on some core services to accommodate demand in some high-growth areas, like social and content.

“We want to be the UK's best-known agency for serious social media work and thrilling creative content. We've maintained our sector-agnostic approach, which has given us stability during this period. Not being beholden to any one industry has been key,” he says.

Equally, while Soap Media has a lot to be proud of, Markerle also says it’s mindful of the pitfalls of resting on its laurels.

“To maintain our success, we have a clear vision of continually improving the customer experience. We’re currently adding more project managers to increase our client services team further, alongside building partner performance into the development plans for everyone who works at Soap.

“Our culture is about instilling accountability and ownership, and because everyone is so invested and engaged in these goals, we continue to excel at it.

“Ultimately, it’s a perfect confluence of dedication, innovation and optimization, and we’ll continue to empower everyone to achieve these industry-leading results.”

Are you looking for your next agency partner? The Drum Recommends is The Drum’s agency recommendation platform. We gather client ratings for agencies to become recommended; in turn, clients can search the hundreds of client recommended agencies for their next project.

Agencies that join The Drum Recommends before March 24 will be automatically entered into The Drum Recommends Awards for Marketing and Advertising.