The client-agency relationship needs a little TLCKolumne von Adele Gritten
I spoke in an MRS Fringe panel session at the annual MRS conference in the UK this month. As someone who has been working in MR for almost 20 years, the first 10 years client side and the last 10 years agency side, my talk centred around the fact that clients and agencies used to be close, but sadly, that is not necessarily so anymore. Trust has waned and agencies are no longer paid for their genuine consultative skills and methodological rigour.
I gave a brief personal example citing how a new client/agency relationship can fall apart on the first project when agency expertise is disregarded and basic respect lacking. I talked about how it is virtually impossible for even the best moderator to do their job well with a videographer plus two clients in tow that interject and effectively disregard the discussion guide that they themselves had signed off, asking their own impromptu questions on the spot with little bearing on the business and research objectives in hand.
I also talked about rushed fieldwork to meet client deadlines with weekend working by agency staff to get toplines ready as close as possible to immediately (with no thank you from the client). I also talked about preparing a 35 slide PowerPoint deck of overall findings, having been told that brevity was really key, but that turned out not to be detailed enough after all, and the final deck ended up as 95 slides within a week. Sigh!
The truth is that often neither clients nor agencies really know their role anymore. Increasingly, there are fewer genuine client side researchers in tenure, especially those with 20+ years of experience influencing the top of their organization. Equally, as agencies have cut costs and consolidated since 2008, genuinely senior and experienced Directors are much harder to come by. That's also tallied with the rise of the one man bands and small consultancies within the MR industry.
All in all, I identified four bug bears that make me feel that the client-agency relationship is in need of some simple TLC – tender loving care.
First bug bear. Clients often do not listen to agency advice anymore, whether it is willingness to streamline trackers, reduce lengthy brand attribute statements or listen to agency advice about not attending an in-home depth interview. Agencies must take part of the blame for being rubbish at pushing back and helping clients think about the respondent and overall quality perspective.
Second bug bear. Clients seem increasingly unable to trust agencies to get on with the job, sometimes excessively monitoring during fieldwork (whether that's script and pilot testing or obtrusive attendance in Qual), where the presence of too many cooks renders defunct a true, authentic and unbiased research process. Clients also want us to "train" them as moderators, teach them how to run workshops etc., which in turn enables them to undertake research internally themselves, potentially rendering us obsolete – understandable but short-sighted. Agencies need to find a better balance between educating, enabling and supporting clients and simply giving away the toolkit and ultimately their agency IP.
Third bug bear. Clients are getting ruder and more anti-social when it comes to returning agency account manager calls and emails. They don't want to tell us how the research has been received internally after the final debrief and rarely want to tell us or give us feedback when we lose a pitch. If they do give us a cursory line like "you were too expensive" or "the winning agency submitted a more innovative approach" it's on email rather than in person or on the phone. And why won't they tell us who we're bidding against when pitching for a piece of work? Why the secrecy? Agencies: we obviously haven't done a great job historically of breaking down those barriers!
Fourth and final bug bear. Client side procurement teams have worked at destroying the building of long-term, personal relationships. Yes, I've had a client sit in a lunchtime work session with me and refuse to eat the sandwiches that had been brought in, due to them being viewed as a perk and a gift. I also increasingly have to bid for work where I can't even talk to the insight teams as part of the briefing process or at best, I get to hop on to the 30 minute all agency generic conference call briefing where no-one knows who on earth is calling in. How can fruitful and trustworthy relationships thrive on that basis?
The good news is that the relationship doesn't have to stay hostile! The things that need to be done to get the relationship back on track are not rocket science. But: it takes both parties, not just one side, to want to work at it. At the MRS, I outlined three claims for the client/agency relationship of tomorrow:
- Claim 1: Creating partnership in the relationship is key. A cliché, but the best work can only occur in the absence of fear. Lack of respect for agency's expertise, lack of transparency, threats of canceling the contract and other undercurrents of intimidation only create an atmosphere of mutual distrust and aversion.
- Claim 2: Mutual trust, respect and treating each other well will win the day. Agencies work with clients, not for them. Approaching agencies as just another supplier hinders collaboration and disrupts the notion of working towards common goals. Environments of friendship, teamwork and warmth are a must to get the best out of everybody.
- Claim 3: Agencies need to make a fair profit! Ultimately, both client and agency look for the same thing: profitable growth. Let's not start projects, however small, without a well-defined Statement of Work flexible enough to accommodate possible changes in the future on both sides. Scope creep is still the enemy of all agencies and the biggest drain on profitability.
It really is time to show each other a little more TLC in order to break down the unnecessary barriers we appear to be have been putting in each other's way over these past few years. Any clients with me on that journey? I'd love to talk to you if so!