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63% of clients prefer to see 1 creative route rather than 3: a look at the DBA report

By Nick Glazier, Head of creative



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April 14, 2023 | 9 min read

Nick Glazier of 2LK offers an agency’s perspective on the recent report from the Design Business Association (DBA) on ‘What Clients Really Think’.

People stood in a circle holding lego people

For an agency-client partnership to truly work, clients must know who they're working with. / Vlad Hilitanu

The Design Business Association (DBA) has published its ninth annual ‘What Clients Think’ report, based on 650 detailed interviews. While some of the findings might seem obvious, the investigation delivered some surprises.

First, three obvious findings.

‘Clients will always want more’

Increased pressure means clients expect more from their agencies, but there is a tipping point where agency and client have to meet half-way and help each other to succeed.

‘Marketing is more complex than five years ago’

Some would say that marketing’s become more complex because we’ve made it so. Operating across multiple channels and ever more audience sectors, the need to hit all the high notes of a demanding brief has made it harder (though not impossible) to deliver exciting, provocative and memorable creative that stands out.

The ‘rise of data’

Yes to the influence of data, but we are also being told we are drowning in data. Clients can help agencies by selecting only the relevant data and insights in the briefing process.

Now, moving on to the surprises.

63% of clients prefer to be presented with just 1 creative route option rather than 3

If we take this finding at face value, the approach could change the whole premise of pitch documents – just think of the time and creative energy saved, not to mention the money. However, only offering one creative option would heighten the possibility of not hitting the mark first time, leading to timely and costly revisions and (worse still) loss of client confidence.

For the ‘one-option pitch’ to be widely adopted, briefs would have to be on-point and communication (and collaboration) between client and agency highly effective.

That’s not all. The report also states that “over two-thirds of clients say their pitch brief isn’t as prescriptive as it seems”, making the single idea approach even more of a minefield. This is a classic case for knowing your client. Some, of course, like to have a selection of creative routes to give context and variation (especially if the options are executional).

75% of clients admit to finding design effectiveness difficult to quantify

There are many facets to this. Sure, some agencies add fuel to this fire, but in many cases, it's the opposite. Agencies are continually trying to find cost savings and more efficient ways to deliver and evaluate ROI.

Quite rightly, clients hold us accountable and always push for a sharp commercial approach. We often respond with innovative solutions to deliver on brief and budget.

61% of clients believe their agency could understand more about their business

As marketers, we’re aware one of the fundamentals of effective marketing is ‘know your audience’, so why does this large proportion of clients feel their agency doesn’t fully understand them?

The more understanding, the better the outcome. The challenge comes when agencies are required to do this rapidly, like in a pitch scenario, where there is no long-standing relationship to draw on.

Truly understanding the brand, audience and cultural playspace of a business takes time and (certainly at the beginning of the relationship) we tend to know just enough to respond creatively; true understanding comes as the collaboration matures.

Another thing to consider is that the agency space is crowded with both ‘generalist’ and vertical specialists. It’s important for the client to know who they’re working with. Vertical specialists will have deep industry knowledge in spades, however a ‘horizontal’ specialist will have expertise in a different form, be it social media, SEO, internal comms, etc.

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Only 12% of clients described their creative agency as the ‘best’ partner/supplier they work with...

... And just 14% said their agency ‘regularly exceeds their expectations’

These two statistics together pack quite a punch. Maybe we just need to do better. Or do we?

The statement stokes the question of responsibility and respect of our collective places in the business partnership ecosystem. For us, it’s about a transparent, honest long-term partnership – and neither agency nor client have all the answers.

Perhaps the key is not the agency doing better, but the onus being on both parties to hone their alignment to fully realize the true potential of their partnership.

Key takeaways

If we are lucky enough to have a developed relationship with a client, we must consider their long term strategy as part of the ongoing relationship. One of 2LK’s values is ‘With, not for’, which alludes to just this type of partnership.

While the DBA report offers invaluable insights which are not to be sniffed at, neither client or agency exist in isolation. We need to take into account that the report solely feeds back on what the agency could improve on. However, the best partnerships are the one where client and agency work together for the mutual aim of elevating a brand, telling a story, and making a meaningful audience connection.

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