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To improve relationships, agencies need to challenge their clients

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EMEA agencies are falling behind at seizing the initiative and challenging clients, according to data from Aprais

Have agencies become wary of confrontation? This question was posed by Ulrich Proeschel, chairman of the International Agencies Council of EACA in our recent webinar.

We presented a chart based on data from over 22,000 client-agency evaluations, comparing agency performance between 2000 and 2020 in the EMEA, the Americas and APAC, as judged by clients. There was room for improvement in most areas, but two stood out.

 The chart above is based on average scores given my marketers. The numbers represent the gap between the bottom 10% of agencies and the top 10% as scored by their clients. The larger the gap, the greater the opportunity for agencies to improve.

In EMEA, clients clearly felt that their agencies needed to be stronger in the areas of 'Resilience' and 'Challenge'.

Resilience is defined as ‘the ability to withstand and bounce back from crises’.

Resilience has always been a key requirement in the advertising business, but Covid has highlighted the need for it more than ever. Hence the greater emphasis placed on it by clients.

The Challenge issue is more alarming. In this context, Challenge means ‘taking the initiative, challenging the status quo and addressing conflict’. European agencies are behind when it comes to challenging clients.

Agencies need to be embraced as consulting partners – and clients need to be open to being challenged. Of course, the only way that can happen is if the agency steps up and fulfils that role.

We suspect that the current ambience of job insecurity may have discouraged confrontation. People may be afraid of losing their job if they step out of line or say something out of place.

It’s an environment that breeds risk-avoidance. This is contrary to the common wisdom that breakthrough work often requires courage, both of the agency sell it and the client to buy it. In a relationship where there is little or no confrontation, risky ideas may be supressed.

We believe challenge is an opportunity for agencies to stand out. Ulrich Proeschel of EACA believes it’s a necessity. In his words, “It seems that we Europeans have become a little too timid when it comes to arguing our corner”.

Challenge should not be confused with aggression. Ulrich believes this is about confidently sharing knowledge. He is confident that agencies are more than able to play a consultancy role; “With the expertise to defend our opinions: we can use data to show our clients what we know, not just what we believe”.

Ulrich also feels that agencies can be guilty of pushing problems back instead of stepping up to the plate. For example by waiting until the next meeting to raise issues, rather than being in a constant conversation with clients. That’s what a partnership is all about.

Aprais also presented insights around how the client-agency relationship changed during the Covid-19 era.

Our data reveals that the number of conversations between agencies and clients had risen during the pandemic. In the first half of 2020, 31% of agencies surveyed said they were in contact with their client every day. By the second half of the year this had leapt up to 50%.

And yet, overall client scores did not increase dramatically in the same period. From this we can suppose that it’s not the frequency of contact – it’s the quality of the interactions that count.

Ulrich concluded by saying; “I believe we need both. Of course we shouldn’t be in touch with our clients simply to demonstrate our constant availability. But regular dialogue enables us to address challenges quickly and move projects towards a successful conclusion, which is surely our common goal”.

So the outtake is clear; the ability to take risks and be more bold (i.e. Challenge), is something that all staff need to be encouraged to do. Because it’s an opportunity for improved client-agency performance.

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