‘Clients are uncomfortable with the way their agencies approach them’, agencies warned

Agencies have been warned they may be nailing briefs, but they are failing to solve actual business problems, by a panel of former agency heads who moved on to head up big brands.

Jenny Williams, Luke Dunkerley, Paul Bennett and Julia Varigiu on the panel

“Universally clients say they feel uncomfortable with the way their agencies approach them,” said moderator Julia Vargiu, founder and principal of New Business Methodology, leading the Mumbrella360 panel that boasted a combined 70 years of client-side and 25 of agency-side experience.

“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,” said Jenny Williams whose career has included roles at Tribal, DDB and until last month was CMO at health insurer HCF.

“Your time is really precious” said 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.”

Paul Bennett, the former MD for Sapient Nitro’s Australian operations who recently joined Cap Gemeni to oversee the consulting firm’s integrated digital offerings believes it’s important to look a client’s broader business picture.

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

The relationship between clients and agencies isn’t a one-way street observed Luke Dunkerley, the former CEO of Campaign Palace, MD at M&C Saatchi Direct, who spent a decade as general manager for marketing at Woolworths.

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

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, Dunkerby sais. “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 said 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 said. “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,” said 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, said 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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