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How the pandemic shaped the future of business relationships

October 10, 2022

The unwanted pandemic forced us all, in whatever roles we had, to rethink and reassess how we lived and worked. Millions died, economies were devastated and yet in these challenging times we rediscovered a sense of community, support for those unable to cope.

In these times communities tend to pull together, not fragment. Relationships are created and strengthened to resist the external threat. Without these relationships, communities tend to fail and society is damaged.

As someone who helped organize a local Covid support group that built a community of volunteers from scratch in a couple of weeks, and sustained it for nearly two years, helping the vulnerable with shopping, medicine and sometimes just someone to talk to, I wondered whether this positive action was reflected in the workplace.

Digging into the data

At Aprais we have captured relationship data from more than 25,000 client-agency evaluations which can provide extraordinary insights about team performance.

So, we looked at this data across three time periods, pre-pandemic, during the pandemic and post-pandemic in EMEA to see if we could identify what has changed and whether it might last. Now a note a caution here is warranted. This is a sample of our clients – both agencies and clients - who already value relationships and are committed to relationship management and improvement.

Across EMEA we see the agencies’ evaluations of their clients sustained post pandemic, whilst the clients slip back slightly. Importantly, both are still ahead of pre-pandemic scores.

When we dive deeper into the behaviors within client agency relationships, we find several interesting results.

Three key behaviors

Looking first at the changes in clients scoring their agencies we see scores universally down from pandemic scores but still a long way ahead of pre-pandemic level. I’ve highlighted three important behaviors: trust, resilience and accountability.

It’s perhaps inevitable that there would be a movement back towards the pre-pandemic norm, but there is still a significant margin or improvement that indicates something important has happened.

Similarly, looking at agency scores of the client we can see that post pandemic scores are not only robust in some cases, but also continuing to improve.

Diving deeper we also found that gains in some functional areas like timing, process management and the perennial thorny issue of briefing remain robust. Areas like partnering and collaboration exhibit further positive movement.

Perhaps we are seeing evidence that some relationship improvements are being maintained?

Capturing goodwill

But when we delve deeper into client scores of agencies, we see a retrenchment on 5 functional areas . Creative and production holds ground and financial management improves further. But collaboration, a key measure, is almost back to pre-pandemic levels.

This seems to indicate that the goodwill generated by mutual survival in the pandemic needs to be captured and reflected in working procedures, through analyzing what really worked and why. The opportunity to reset the agency relationship with the benefits of a closer mutual dependency, and not return to the same old ways of working, should not be squandered.

We also looked at frequency of contact. It’s difficult to remember, but pre-pandemic most [non tech] client relationships were based on sterile emails and conference calls punctuated with infrequent human contact. The pandemic forced us to discover that technological disruption had removed the need for expensive video conferencing suites and it’s now all workable at home through Zoom and Teams.

What’s interesting when we consider frequency of contact is the difference between everyday contact scores by the agency and by the client.

There is a clear difference in the client’s perception of everyday contact, and the agency’s. They seem to have settled on a three-to-one contact per week and maintained it after the pandemic. But not on a daily basis. Is this gap in perception of contact actually about the value of the contact, and is this one reason that collaboration scores have fallen?

Smarter thinking, added value

As we have seen in other data, an ‘always on’ culture does not mean ‘always quality’ and will not therefore translate into improved relationship scores. The quality of interactions is always more important than the quantity.

We have changed our ways of working because technology let us cope with a pandemic. This has accelerated change in clients demands and improved the understanding of the agency offer. It has also led to the removal of old weak processes [costs], increasing focus on the ability of agencies to think smarter and add value to their clients at pace.

But do we understand the impact on our talent? What are we doing differently, better, to improve their ability to build better day to day working relationships? What did we all do differently that suddenly resulted in better briefs?

At Aprais we believe that the pandemic created benefits in terms of better mutual understanding and common goals. Good clients and agencies have spent time working out a plan to sustain and share those benefits.

This means that you, both clients and agencies, all have permission to rethink and apply new ways of working. Many clients have rediscovered their need for and love of their agency relationships. Many agencies have realized that what they do best is valuable to their clients.

We passionately believe that better business relationships give both agency and client a mutual competitive advantage. That advantage is going to help both, together, survive the coming economic storm better.

Julian Ingram is associate partner at Aprais. This piece is a summary of a presentation given at the recent EACA national council's meeting in Athens.


Agency Business
client-agency evaluations
client-agency relationships
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