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As the world opens up, this is what agency clients want right now


By Kenneth Hein | Editor

April 12, 2021 | 11 min read

Summer is coming – and with economies beginning to open up again, a flurry of major pitches in the air and consumer behavior all over the map, what are clients asking their agency partners for most often? The Drum asked more than a dozen top leaders to share the most common client refrains.

open up

As the world opens up, here are clients' common refrains.

Clients want to stay relevant


David Angelo, founder and creative chairman, David & Goliath

The consensus out there regarding what clients are asking is how they can stay relevant. And if they are not asking this, they should be. If there’s one thing that 2020 taught us, it’s perspective. It gave us the chance to evaluate what is truly important in life and how best we could reimagine a better world for all, and not just a few. We saw this from brands all throughout the pandemic. Brands have the means to support their employees, customers and the communities they live in.

They have the ability to shape the conversations around social issues that are relevant today. To provide even greater value during a time of immense need for their consumers. And it all begins with the intent behind the effort and a commitment to create even greater value for customers and the world around them. Those who continue to build from 2020, will be the ones who usher in a more meaningful definition of relevance and set the stage for the future of brands and the impactful roles they play in our lives.


Ruth Bernstein, chief executive officer, Yard NYC

Right now, for CMOs, all roads lead back to one question: how can we meet the moment in the right way? Naturally, everyone wants to do the right thing at the right time. But knowing what and when that is has become increasingly unpredictable, which has made brands afraid to try.

Because even though they know that getting it right has big payoffs, they also understand that misjudging the mood or communicating in a tone-deaf manner is a recipe for backlash. Our advice to CMOs is currently to focus on the small moments and milestones that people are looking forward to as things recover. Yes, there are big milestones coming this year, but the small moments that we overlook can be just as tangible and compelling.


Melinda Goldstein, marketing chief, The Hain Celestial Group

With more people cooking and snacking at home, the pandemic provided an opportunity for us to innovate, introducing healthier alternatives to popular snacks and trial-sized packaging to make it easier for consumers to try our products. The campaigns we’ve launched during this time, such as ‘Taste the World of Celestial Seasonings‘ for our popular tea brand and ‘Future Beautiful‘ for Alba Botanica, have focused on the healthful decisions each of us can make every day to lead better lives.

As the world opens back up, we’ve tasked our agency partners, like Deutsch NY, with retaining those new households we gained during this past year of at-home eating, while also striking the right tone considering the lingering uncertainties and challenges ahead as we emerge from the pandemic.

Clients want action

Mark Penn

Mark Penn, chairman and chief executive officer of MDC Partners, and managing partner of The Stagwell Group

Clients want it all now. The marketing world has been in hibernation and people are ready to come out to a world that is more digital, more virtual than ever before. Clients who dragged their feet on this new world want to be spring-boarded into the future, and we are ready to help them.


Emma Robertson, chief executive officer, Engine Transformation

The mindset is of action, but also of short-term returns; no one is asking for a three-year plan — it is more about the next 100 days. Transformation is once again on the agenda. The biggest difference is the shift from innovation and growth ideas towards more operation and execution; the focus of clients‘ questions are more immediate in execution and in delivering a return

Clients want efficiency


Bill Kolb, chairman and chief executive officer, McCann Worldgroup

There‘s a theme emerging in new business: efficiency. Clients understand more than ever a disciplined marketing approach is the most effective way to drive efficiency. They want agencies to create solutions that eliminate the complexity. And the best way to achieve efficiency is through effective, meaningful creative executed flawlessly. We must develop, evolve, nurture, implement that huge idea across the right platforms that becomes a unifying theme driving meaningful business outcomes.

Clients want to stay the course on purpose


Tripti Lochan, co-chief executive officer Asia, VMLY&R

We need to dissect the question — there’s what clients asking for and then there‘s what are consumers looking for. The two need to play together. A Kantar report found that nine in 10 consumers in Asia want a brand to have purpose and value, which means that in order to build a brand and customer experience, we need to make sure our clients are authentic and genuine, with value and purpose in categories where they’ve earned the right to be.

For example, as one of Indonesia’s most loved sauces and seasonings brand, ABC Kraft Heinz champions equality in the kitchen. On a tactical level, brands are looking to lead the race to commerce. Digital transformation is no longer considered new — that’s now table stakes. Today, it’s about being a connected brand, living where your consumers are and harnessing creativity, technology and culture to create an experience that is memorable and converts to a transaction at the point of sale.


Simon Jefferson, managing partner, AKQA

As the world opens up, there’s a real sense of optimism and positivity within client organizations. They seems to share a common desire to do less harm to the planet, find their place in the world, accelerate digital transformation and create better, more inspiring customer experiences. We’re working with several large organizations to help define their purpose, reposition their brands and determine how they show up to their customers.

Sustainability is an increasingly important part of this conversation, as companies look to reduce their impact on the planet. For the majority of organizations, across many industries, the pandemic has accelerated digital transformation initiatives. The move to digitization is now a business imperative, not a ‘nice to have.‘ Clients are wanting to optimize and transform their end-to-end brand experience as they look to create greater value to their customers and shareholders.


Natasha Chetiyawardana, co-founder and creative partner, Bow & Arrow

What’s interesting now is the interest clients are showing in agency people and culture at this time. In client interest or not, the losers will be organizations that have not cared about culture or seen it as one of the most important things you can do in a business, especially remotely.

You have to do good by both your clients and your talent, and I believe you to have purpose and people at the heart of what you do — clients notice and care about that now. They are looking for partners, not automatons, so what and how we do by our people matters.

Clients want agencies to serve as consultants


Bob Liodice, chief executive officer, ANA

Client are saying, 'Show me how to win.' The marketplace is extraordinarily competitive and complex, and so the ability for a marketer to succeed is predicated on their ability to understand those landscapes. And that's not easy to do. I'm not sure that counsel from agencies is as forthcoming as it used to be.

If you think about the role of a CMO in particular, it's a little lonely to be in that position and trying to unravel the mysteries of our industry are very, very challenging. Oftentimes we need that consultative part of what an agency can provide. The need for the agency, more than ever, is to provide that consultation, that advice, that guidance, those strategic underpinnings that can really help the CMO prioritize and make decisions for the better.

Clients want flexibility


Omid Farhang, co-founder and chief executive officer, Majority

Remember when we all worried that clients creating internal agencies would be the death of ad agencies? Turns out, the opposite is proving true. Internal agencies have attracted and cultivated more creatively ambitious clients who value deep collaboration and eschew formality.

In turn, this is thankfully leading to a greater desire for work that speaks to something bigger than products/services alone. Deeper meaning. Not in the form of artsy fartsy commercials, but substantive brand acts. Because where politics continually fail us, the aftermath of Covid will further embolden brands to wield their powers for change, for progress, for good. That's what we're feeling from clients. And that's what we're betting on.


Andy Dougan, founder and chief executive officer, We are Flex

The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development has predicted that 50% of professionals will be in a portfolio career by 2030. As a result, there is a demand for more fluid, distributed offerings and services as clients recognize that the best, most relevant talent is no longer locked into a fixed, traditional agency model.

In addition, the last 12 months have seen many brand and businesses undergo radical changes in their people structure, seeing heavy cuts but still expected to perform at high levels, even with a reduced headcount. That is why there is also an increased demand for agency partners to support clients at a business/operational level and not just as a creative and marketing partner.

Clients want to know what’s next for events


Sam DiGennaro, founder and chief executive officer, DiGennaro Communications

As the market begins to open up, one of the biggest client asks we’re hearing is related to B2B events and industry relations/marketing. Executive visibility and thought leadership programs are top-of-mind as so many organizations and C-level executives are looking for ways to differentiate themselves and break through the sea of sameness.

And with the proliferation of virtual and hybrid events, a very specific ask — from just about all clients in the media, publishing, entertainment and tech spaces — is, ‘How do we show up, if at all? And what narrative or platform will help us stand out?‘

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