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CMOs to agencies: 'rip up the scope of work'

By Angela Johnson, Client development officer

October 1, 2020 | 5 min read

Whether it is a sports streaming service or a home goods manufacturer, client businesses have been completely transformed in the past few months. Chief marketers now want, and need, their agency partners to transform with them.

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Rip up the scope of work. This is the clear message that CMOs are sending. They have moved from a steady cadence of annual planning to having to plan and replan monthly — and for some even weekly.

‘Tearing up the SOW’ is shorthand for ‘work with me to replan our entire business model’. It is very clear that clients need some of the same things they always had, but they now need them faster. And there are things that agencies didn’t provide before but are required at this moment. This was the key takeaway from the 4A’s latest session in their Business as Unusual series: “Clients tell it like it is. What they need from agencies and their account leaders now more than ever.”

So, what specifically do clients really want?

Clients want agencies who aren’t afraid of change, who can flex with the current needs. This means creating a flexible team structure and an ability to work in agile ways. Clients know this is hard to do on a team-by-team basis, but also know that demanding new models will provide the impetus to push agencies where they need to go. Agencies were already experiencing the move from annual retainers to more flexible ways of providing services and Covid-19 has accelerated this even further.

Clients want agencies to be the Waze of consumer behavior. Marketers need guidance as to which changes in consumer behavior are a temporary diversion or are here to stay. Consumers are forging new paths as they move through to the next normal. The best agencies can plot a reroute for a client, before the client even knew there was an issue ahead.

Clients want media sherpas too. With the media landscape changing rapidly and continuously, clients need their agency partner to predict shifts and keep them one step ahead. From the unfolding drama of social platforms (to boycott or not to boycott; being banned or not being banned) to moves in the upfronts/newfronts, clients have more complexity on their plates and less time to understand it.

Clients want trusted partners. Amid all of the turbulence, client relationships have actually strengthened. Clients on the panel talked about divulging more confidential information to their partners than ever before. They have to share more business context to help the agency understand the pivots they are making. Trusted client leaders are their confidantes in that. This experience has bonded them more strongly.

Where do agency relationships stand now?

Marketers have made it clear that if their relationship with their agency was good before the pandemic, then good has often turned to great. In fact, they marked their agencies higher than before, according to May’s Relationship Ratings from the Client Relationship Consultancy, used by the majority of agencies to judge the state of their client relationships. Clients appreciate the extra level of service and results their partners have provided under difficult conditions. It will be interesting to see if agencies can keep up the level of effort now that we have realized this is a marathon not a sprint. On the other hand, clients said that if there had been cracks in the relationship before the pandemic then these will have been exacerbated and a split could be imminent. So, the time is now to repair those relationships as clients look forward to their 2021 options.

Agencies, the message from clients is clear: rip up your SOW, get super agile and act like Waze to reroute them out of trouble. At the same, clients appreciate your partnership in these crazy times. The bonds you’ve formed are only getting stronger. In what is predicted to be the worst year on record in 60 years for our industry, this is a glimmer of hope to hang onto – as we move to more agile ways of working.

Angela Johnson is the chair of the 4A’s business leadership committee and client development officer at dentsu

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