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‘The answer can’t begin with marketing’: behind the new agency-client relationship


By Sam Anderson, Network Editor

April 21, 2022 | 6 min read

Agencies and their clients enjoy a symbiotic relationship that, when it works, results in work that neither could create alone. Is the relationship between those two parties shifting toward deeper and wider collaboration? And if it is, what does that mean the industry is requiring from its agencies and their workers right now? We sat down with six experts from The Drum Network to find out.

A signpost at sunset

What’s behind recent changes in agency-client relationships – and where are things headed next? / Javier Allegue Barros via Unsplash

It seems almost true by definition: a marketing agency’s job is to help brands market the things they make and do.

But in our recent conversations with marketers, another truth has been emerging: the relationship between brand and agency is shifting, with the best agencies making their presence felt way beyond the traditional marketing mix. They’re getting involved earlier, we’ve heard; and being asked to solve problems not just by chief marketers but by every department going. They’re working collaboratively on briefs that aim not just at marketing activities but organizational and product change. They’re being asked to find and fix deep problems.

As Nucco’s Cassy Waugh head of client services sums it up, “the problems we’re solving aren’t just marketing anymore.”

‘It’s incredibly complex for clients’

What’s caused these changes? The Covid-19 pandemic seems to have been a hastener – as brands woke up to a world changed overnight, they turned to marketing partners for guidance. But our panel says that the underlying conditions run deeper. It’s a tough world for brands: endlessly proliferating platforms; an infinite array of tools behind those platforms; and a multiplicity of levers to pull behind the scenes. “It’s incredibly complex for clients – your typical CMO has to know so many disciplines,” says Oliver’s head of strategy Nick Myers. “What they want is to be able to speak to fewer people who have knowledge across more things.”

That’s the nub of it: as marketers have gained knowledge of planning, strategy, design and implementation (especially with digital assets), they’ve become that single partner. Meanwhile, those same technological developments and insights have been applied to marketers’ work too. “There was this idea of the creative piece as fluff,” says Wilderness’s managing director Jamie Maple. “We’re dealing with clients who are as informed [as us]. They just don’t have the scope in-house to cover what they need. That’s a great thing for us: you get more insight from them and you’re able to have more collaboration.”

Those two factors combine to create this new agency-client relationship – and our panel couldn’t be happier. As Niki McMorrough, Relevance’s UK commercial director, has it: “It’s back to the true definition of marketing, which is to find a market opportunity, come up with a product and bring it to market. It’s so much more exciting than, ‘can you make up a campaign to flog this stuff?’ That’s a little bit late in the day for it to be exciting.”

Ts and πs: the shape of agency expertise

In short, the explanation is simple: brands are turning to agencies where the latter have expertise that can help them out. That leads to one simple lesson for agencies: “Deep expertise is a real value-add,” says Haseeb Shaik, digital transformation director at Adapt Worldwide. ‘Expertise’ here doesn’t just mean technical know-how or subject-matter prowess, but an ability to “join up the dots,” says Shaik: to understand the wider ramifications of a lever-pull, the proverbial wave releases of every beat of the butterfly’s wings.

For both agencies and the workers they employ, this informs the shapes that the world is asking them to contort into. For teams, says Myers, the key is “rightsizing”: the ability to flex team size and shape in response to the environment; Oliver’s in-housing model is of course one route to that kind of flexibility.

For workers, McMorrough says, the expertise criterion calls for “generalists to become a bit more T-shaped” – meaning broad generalism grounded by an upright of deep knowledge. Even better than T-shapers, says Shaik, are π-shaped workers with two separate upright pillars of expertise. (Presumably triple- or quadruple-pillared people would be even better, but are harder to find. And, to stretch the metaphor, the challenge after finding them will be to interweave the horizontals so that all that deep vertical knowledge joins the wider web of experience.)

In many cases in today’s ecosystem, these deep wells of expertise will be technical: data or development, for example. The depth is necessary, says Richard Arscott, president of Revolt USA, precisely because the ultimate problems that manifest as roadblocks in marketing (or wherever else) are themselves deep. “The answer can’t begin with marketing,” he says. “You have to go back to the infrastructure of the organization ... You have to have deep domain experience and purpose to then make infrastructure changes.”

A coming expertise gap?

The requirement for expertise has led, our panel says, to another shift: in the people they’re employing and putting in front of clients. “The requirement is for experienced people ... and less juniors,” says Waugh. And while working on bigger, more strategic briefs, Arscott says: “Senior people have enjoyed reverting to practitioner roles.”

It doesn’t take much of a leap to spot a looming risk for the industry, says Waugh: if agencies stop bringing in and training young talent, where will the next generation of expertise come from? That’s for the industry to decide.

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