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‘The comfort zone of agencies is the cringe zone of clients’ | Mumbrella360 video

During the following session from the Mumbrella360 conference, a panel of ex-agency CMOs attempt to figure out how to bridge the "cringe zone" gap between clients and their agencies.

Julia Vargiu, founder and principal of New Business Methodology tells the audience at June’s conference: “Clients say they feel uncomfortable with the way the majority of their agencies approach them.

“This is not just new agencies who are angling for a project or a place on the roster, or the next pitch list, but this includes even their existing agencies, who often come to them cap in hand asking for a brief or more money.

“When it comes to new business, the comfort zone of agencies is the cringe zone of clients. So why does this gap persist between what the agencies are selling and what the clients want to buy?”

Paul Bennett, Capgemini’s digital strategy, marketing and communications lead believes the key to answering that question lies in looking at the client’s broader business picture.

“If I was running an agency now I’d want to have a much more sophisticated business conversation,” Bennett reflects. “We didn’t really have broad enough conversations with our clients,” he says. “We were having a pinpoint conversation where we were trying to solve their problem with a TV ad.”

Jenny Williams whose career has included roles at Tribal, DDB and until last month was CMO at health insurer HCF, thinks agencies don’t always manage to solve actual business problems.

Williams: “You start to get really resentful when you get invited to a meeting where you’re taught to suck eggs”

“As a CMO you’re trying to solve a business issue. Quite often the agency solves the brief but it doesn’t actually solve the business problem,” she says.

“Your time is really precious,” says Williams of her jump from agency to client side. “You start to get really resentful when you get invited to a meeting where you’re taught to suck eggs.”

The relationship between clients and agencies isn’t a one-way street, observes Luke Dunkerley, who spent a decade as general manager for marketing at Woolworths.

He believes clients’ marketing departments expect too much of their agencies.

“You all want your personal valet but we don’t have enough money to pay for an agency person for every one of you.”

Another difficulty agencies face with their clients is hubris, Dunkerley says. “It was a problem at Woolworths, they were very proud of their size and that breeds a haughtiness in people.

“They understood they worked for this unbelievably successful company – without really noticing it they were lording it over the agencies and it was everyone’s chance to be tough. I had to force humility onto them.”

For agencies pitching into businesses, a cold call has to be backed by a demonstrable record, says Williams.

“One thing I had never appreciated until I sat on the client side is how much you get besieged by people telling you how they can help you,” she said.

“You would get 20 emails or LinkedIn messages saying ‘This is what we do, we’re really good at it and this is how we can help’,” she says. “Unless you stand out as doing something well, you don’t stand out as doing anything.”

In a crowded field, understanding the clients’ problems is the key to winning business, agreed the panel.

“Learn the specifics of the business,” says Dunkerby. “Work out what are the trends and what are the numbers that really matter – particularly profit. In a big business, look at the EBIT, how fragile it is and what makes it go up or down, then tailor your suggestions to that knowledge. Suddenly they’ll look at you with completely new eyes.”

Understanding the business imperatives is one of the advantages big consultancies have over traditional agencies, says Bennett.

“Agencies have to understand they have to adapt. Sitting now as a consultant, this is something consultants have an advantage with because they can get their heads around the business.”

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