What do clients want?

David SpasovicWith several of Australia’s biggest media accounts coming up for tender and many changing hands this year David Spasovic looks at what is causing so many client-agency relationships to fracture.

A cursory glance at the recent stories, opinion pieces and comments in the trade press present an image of significant rumblings of discontent in our industry. A quick count of media relationships that are or have recently been reviewed is evidence of this – Woolworths, Federal Government, Lion, Diageo, Nestle and CBA are a few accounts that fall into this category.

These guys add up to hundreds of millions of dollars of spending. Does this indicate there is a yawning gap between what clients are looking for and what agencies are providing? The strength of some of the comments posted on this site would suggest this is the case.

I recently moved from a client-side role to take up an opportunity in a media agency. Whilst most of my career has been spent in media agencies, I feel after spending a few years on the client side I better appreciate what clients actually want and why.

The client I worked for, Harvey Norman, is widely known for doing its media in-house. However, we did work with several external agency partners. This, combined with my past experience across several agencies allows me to compare and contrast what a client is looking for and what an agency delivers. Four key themes occur that are worth putting forward for discussion:

1. Clients don’t want to pitch but are often forced to

There is a misconception that clients are endlessly fishing around for a better deal, for any agency that is better, cheaper and faster. Whilst some clients are obliged to tender on a periodic basis, the reality is that clients would prefer not to change agencies at all. Clients often move on because the trust they have in their agency to deliver on their needs has been diminished. It sounds simple but the best way to keep clients happy is to listen to them, understand what they want and do your damnedest to deliver on these needs. An agency that is not driven by their clients’ needs and is instead pushing another agenda can be spotted a mile off. This means being completely transparent with them, and taking ownership of mistakes when they occur, which is not always the case.

2. Appreciate that media is just one part of the puzzle

I have worked for some great media agencies and had the pleasure to work with some amazingly talented people who come up with great ideas. However, if there was a weakness in the overall approach it was a lack of appreciation that the client’s world did not begin and end with its media agency. Media agencies have an important role to play but they are just one part of the puzzle. Agencies need to realise that there are other factors that influence a client’s decisions such as budget cuts or changes to marketing direction. Working collaboratively with a client in an effective team can be as important as what actual work is produced.

3. Failure is ok

Media agencies have to accept that failure in some form is inevitable, and they need to more readily own their mistakes. It was on the client side that I was exposed to a completely different approach that I felt was much more honest and accepting of imperfection. If a media plan was a flop, we wouldn’t dwell on it. We wouldn’t try to ‘put lipstick on a pig’.

We would accept that something didn’t work. Importantly, we would work out why it didn’t work, then document and communicate this. Then we would draw a line in the sand and move on. The amount of effort to take this approach was by far an easier path and allowed us to focus our energies on the next thing. I am a complete advocate for accountability and transparency, and I’m not saying that if a campaign didn’t work we’d ignore it. There was definitely reporting to be done. But I realised on the client side a lot less time and effort was allocated to package up something that was bad to look good, than there is on the media agency side.

I think that some agencies get distracted by trying to look good when it’s more important to be honest and focus on the client’s business. It is amazing how being open and upfront about imperfections can help build a healthy, long-term relationship.

4. Embrace staff diversity

I found on client side that the capabilities and the limitations of the staff were acknowledged and accepted. Agencies need to give more time to matching up the right people to the right account rather than taking a cookie-cutter approach. Of course, every agency claims to have the ‘best staff’ and ‘best training’, but best at what? Whilst there are a few exceptions, clients generally place a greater emphasis than agencies on putting their staff into roles that gets the best out of them. Taking this approach is quickly reflected in the quality of output and ‘value’ produced.

At the end of the day, the game that we are in is to sell more stuff. On the client side my role was to help deliver sales. That was it. The fact I worked in the digital area to do this was almost secondary.

The key stakeholders interest in what I did pretty much began and ended with wanting to know what digital channels drove best ROI. Most clients behave like this. Agencies influenced by factors other than driving their client sales can easily be spotted.

Achieving a client’s business objectives needs to be seen to be more important to an agency than awards, parties, or number of clients they have. Trying to achieve this may occasionally lead to a cock-up and will definitely depend on great collaboration amongst different types of people. Clients are human and appreciate that no-one is perfect, but if they trust and believe in you then long-term, profitable relationships will ensue.

David Spasovic is head of digital advertising at Nunn Media


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