Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

The future of client relationships – can they be stronger than before?

By Fiona Wylie, CEO and Founder, The Brand Champions

I have always firmly believed that the strongest work in marketing and advertising comes out of close, collaborative working relationships between brands and agencies. Rather than being merely transactional,  in the last couple of months, all of our professional relationships have become closer than we might ever have imagined. Down a video link, we have seen the insides of each other’s houses, greeted each other’s children and pondered the future of humanity, our companies, bottom lines and jobs.

Perhaps when this is all over, it won’t leave much of an impression on us, but will come to feel like an odd dream we once had that we don’t tend to mention. But I’m not so sure. I think this period will bring change to the way we all work in the long term, in ways both subtle and obvious, good and bad. We have an opportunity to develop our new understanding of each other’s challenges and circumstances, and we also need to guard against a few things, such as:

Higher expectations

Confined to our homes, glued to our screens, determined to keep our businesses alive and ourselves useful, we have all allowed life and work to bleed into each other during lockdown; and we have all been on call more or less constantly. Maybe we have been managing children in the daytime and working during the evening; perhaps we have been taking meetings or calls at the weekend, because what’s the difference? Maybe we have had less clients than our normal day to day?

How will we manage those expectations when we’re back in the normal world? As with most things, communication and good personal relationships are key. Agencies need to ensure they don’t over-promise, clients need to ensure they don’t over demand and both discuss realistic timeframes and be candid about the fact that normal life is more cluttered than the lockdown version.

Increased attention

Inevitably, some agency business will have fallen away in these troubled times, so some clients who have stayed the course may well find there is more attention available to them as agencies fill the gaps in their workload. Perhaps their account will suddenly seem as important to their agency as they always wanted it to be, with senior staff more involved and a greater appreciation of their needs. From a client perspective: long may it last. For an agency, being spread too thickly may not be realistic for long. Management of clients expectations is critical here as otherwise this can be so easily misconstrued as lack of importance to them any more.  Don’t forget the clients or the agencies that have been loyal to you during this tricky time.

Greater understanding of tight budgets on both sides 

Desperate times tend to encourage candour in all of us, so we may all know things about each other’s businesses that we didn’t know before: how close they may have come to failing, how fine the margin of success is, how much revenue is required to keep the wolf from the door. In normal circumstances, such matters are usually a well-guarded secret, but the current situation has brought them into the open, where perhaps they needed to be.

Tough negotiating and competitive rates are one side of a coin on which the other side is people’s livelihoods and the economic viability of a business. Now that we’ve been in the trenches together, contemplating dark outcomes and appreciating each other’s stalwart support, perhaps we will give more consideration to fairness, incentivisation and the way we deal with one another.  An easy way to overcome losses is for clients to cut non working media costs, but equally agencies have had a tough time financially and stripping back too much could leave them exposed. Pare back where needed but 

A chance for more strategic thinking

One revelation that must have struck almost all of us amid the enforced slow-down is the sudden ability to stand back from the everyday rush and consider the direction in which everything is heading. For businesses that have been able to adapt and survive in the medium term, this period has been a valuable one for long-term planning of a sort that often gets swept out of the way by more immediately pressing matters. Assuming we have all now managed to find time for strategic thinking – if only to safeguard the future of our companies against unprecedented threats – the wisest among us will enshrine time to build on that thinking when the world starts spinning at full speed again.  Make sure you protect dedicated thinking time again as both a client or an agency, it’s often the first thing that’s taken out of a busy diary but can be the thing that yields the biggest impact, even better if you can take this time together.

Less travel, more virtual meetings

This will be a big one. While virtual meetings inevitably become tiresome if they are the only way you can communicate, it is increasingly hard to pretend that we always need to meet each other face to face if we are to accomplish anything – and certainly not when that meeting requires international or intercontinental travel. Given the environmental impact and the cost of such trips, the likelihood of a long, slow exit from lockdown, our increasing skill at remotely pulling together teams and our newfound understanding of each other’s domestic circumstances and pressures, a partial shift in the long term from in-the-flesh to virtual face-time seems like one obvious win in to keep hold of from this madness.  Agencies can cut travel expenses costs from their clients and clients can use their time more productively. So I would be asking which ones must be face to face and which ones are nice to have and can be done easily online.

It is so important for everyone to learn from this pandemic; lets not threaten our agencies with pitching, let’s build and nurture our agency relationships to make them watertight and create the ultimate true partnership. We are definitely stronger together and if we take the good bits of this nightmare situation we could actually come out the other side reminding ourselves that we should love what we do.