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

How agencies can persuade clients to trust them to solve the big problems


By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

September 6, 2022 | 11 min read

Each week, The Drum asks agency experts from across the world and the ad business for their take on a tough question facing the industry, from topical concerns to perennial pain points.

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How should agencies persuade clients to delegate to them?

Agencies love to talk about the huge impacts that campaigns, branding work or digital transformation projects can have on the trajectory of their clients’ businesses. All good and well, but from a client’s POV that’s a huge responsibility to outsource. Your business is facing a world-ending threat or epochal window of opportunity – why delegate it to another firm?

Even Machiavelli, whose Renaissance guide to corporate climbing is much-trotted-out by businesspeople, warned against outsourcing security to condottiere (mercenaries).

So persuading clients not only to pick your agency but to pick an agency at all, rather than attempting to pull off a transformation project or comms strategy themselves, is a conundrum all agencies must face.

How do you solve a problem like... persuading clients to trust you?

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Ed Brooke, partner, Leith

Having checked the definition of ’condottiere’ (not a lover of Machiavelli), I wouldn’t agree that agencies are ’mercenaries,’ but since you started this Italian thing I’d say that good agencies are more ’consigliere.’ That is to say, they are trusted and expert advisors that help their clients navigate difficult challenges with a wider and often detached world view, not getting lost down what will become introspective and in-house rabbit holes.

Of course, the key here is trust. You have to work hard at this and demonstrate your genuine commitment and talent – but once you have, quality agencies should always be welcome at the client table.

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Grant Theron, IPC global business lead, General Motors, and chief executive officer, Commonwealth//McCann

It starts with how the agency orients itself against the business demands of its clients. If an agency sees its client’s business as indistinguishable from theirs, the focus changes from ’providing advice’ to shared accountability. The incremental benefit an agency can bring in this equation is an honest outside perspective.

This kind of honesty is the fastest way to get to great creative, impactful and effective work. From pitch to execution, agencies need to embrace radical honesty with clients – being unafraid to communicate what’s working, what’s not working and what needs to change. There is value in radical honesty from a partner that has a vested interest in your success.

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Jennifer Rangel, account director, GUT Miami

Content is king, and it takes a sharp eye to help brands stay relevant at the speed of culture. It’s exactly what we do for Popeyes with our in-house content operation. Outside of planned work, there’s a daily work stream where we curate trends, produce content, get client approval and execute it within hours of spotting the trend.

While the process is airtight, here’s the advantage of those operations coming from agencies: we can help strike the right balance between being relevant and being opportunistic, therefore each department from an agency can help internal brand teams with their checks and balances.

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Mark Weinfeld, senior vice-president, managing director, Innocean USA

Ultimately a client in the throes of a downward spiral is looking for someone they can trust to change the trajectory of their business. Hiring an employee or a consultant may help you find a strategic path. But that’s where they stop.

On the other hand, good agencies have a stable of strategists who can also find a turnaround formula. However, an agency not only develops the strategy to make impactful change, but is also responsible for seeing it through execution. This requires a commitment to the end result, not just the path.

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Gareth Goodall, chief strategy officer, Publicis Creative Collective

When agencies talk about the impact of great campaigns, what they’re really talking about is the impact of great relationships. The kind of relationship in which a client has the confidence of knowing that the people they’ve chosen to work with have personally done this before; have performed consistently with excellence throughout their entire careers; have invested themselves emotionally and financially; are all working as hard as they can for the same goals as you; and will never ever give up.

Any client who looks for those things will certainly find a partner they can and should trust. They’re also much more likely to find great work.

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Heidi Waldusky, vice-president, brand marketing, Quad

The best agencies don’t rock up with an answer – how could they? Instead, they operate as collaborative partners able to shape solutions for any unique challenges. That is the very essence of why agencies can be critical to digital transformation: their entire business models are based on not only staying ahead of the transformation curve, but also housing the cognitively diverse talent required to make it happen endless times over.

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Leslie Sims, US chief creative officer, Deloitte Digital

The best way forward is to have a strong internal team and an agency you can rely on for fresh ideas. The internal team must know the brand inside and out for core brand shepherding and to fast-track things such as social and responsive work, which require quick approvals.

And you also need to pulse in external partners with highly specialized skill sets – campaign and platform development creatives, strategists, data and scalable digital marketing – throughout the year to spice things up and bring muscle and a different vantage point.

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Damaune Journey, global chief growth officer, 72andSunny

Engaging an agency isn’t about delegating tasks or outsourcing critical responsibilities. It’s about having a trusted teammate who is as committed to the outcome as you are and who brings complementary skills, capabilities and perspectives that would be hard or too expensive to duplicate internally.

Like any good team, there are specific roles and responsibilities that, if executed well, are accretive to reaching the ultimate goal. Teamwork is critical with agency partners, just as on the pitch or a court. The key element is trust, however.

And that trust is built through the three Cs: demonstrated capability, clear commitment (to each other and the task) and regular communication. At 72andSunny, we lean into cultivating these trusting relationships because we’ve seen that they are the key ingredient that leads to great outcomes.

Beth Freedman

Beth Freedman, chief executive officer, Dentsu X UK

Trust is rooted in honesty. Set the tone by working in partnership to assess what support and service they actually need from their agency, and then build the team that delivers it. Make sure you build a compensation model that includes shared performance KPIs to ensure everyone is a winner and set clear boundaries about what is in and out of scope to avoid future confusion.

Additionally, it is critical to make sure there are regular feedback mechanisms in place, from surveys through to top-to-top meetings where productive, open and honest discussion is celebrated.

And lastly, be ready to provide real client references to show you’re doing this already, as confirmation tends to always be a comfort for clients.

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Tom White, chief strategy officer, AMV BBDO

The IPA’s research into all the various configurations of brand and client relationships concludes that it’s the hybrid models – where on-the-ground brand familiarity meets outsider perspective – that provide the most potential for delivering growth.

As the axiom goes, though, trust is earned and not given. We ask our clients to trust us that they will benefit from our deeper understanding of their audience, and gain advantage from our cross-category expertise that liberates them from the myopia of staring only at their own category.

But we only really earn their trust when they know they’re not just delegating the work but also a big chunk of the responsibility for whether it works too.

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Sairah Ashman, global chief executive officer, Wolff Olins

Why hire an agency at a major inflection point for your business? Three reasons immediately spring to mind. Outside expertise brings fresh new thinking, an objective voice to what might feel uncomfortable coming from within and access to knowledge and skills that might be in short supply internally.

A lot of our best assignments in recent years have been in collaboration with in-house teams. We’re able to draw on a wide variety of experiences and resources to help solve complex business issues, while in-house teams bring a critical understanding of the dynamics within an organization and what’s needed to deliver successfully. Working creatively together makes for ambitious and beautifully executed results.

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Roberto Lastra, chief creative officer and co-founder, Lovers Not Haters

We have a very specific niche. So, thankfully, building up client trust is not a problem for us. We never start by selling a service. We lead with our expertise in making authentic, relevant and relatable work for a specific audience. That’s our approach.

Who we are as people is who we are as an ad agency. We talk to clients about business challenges and opportunities from personal experience because we are the audience they’re trying to reach. This brings them peace of mind about working with us and walking the journey together.

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