Is your retention strategy a winning one?

30 Jan 2023

One could argue that retention has always lagged behind the shiny ‘sexiness’ of new business. At least, that’s certainly always been the perception. Previous AAR client/ agency research showed that 76% of clients and 61% of agency leaders agree that ‘agencies appear to value new business more than existing relationships’.

Given the immense challenges ahead (likely recession, a talent crisis, the skills gap, not to mention the knock-on effect this is having on budgets as reported in the 2022 IPA Bellwether report) there’s never been a more crucial time for agencies to put retention at the heart of strategy.

Demystifying how we think of retention

It’s clear that there’s a perception that agencies over-index on new business, and that ‘shiny new’ clients will get their attention while existing accounts may not be given the same level of priority.

But is it not more the case that agencies are so used to measuring and tracking new business that it’s naturally seen as carrying more significance than retention? After all, it's hardly newsworthy that an agency retains a client's business, whether for another project or to celebrate a 10-year anniversary, is it? 

Well, in my book it should be. There should be league tables, awards and media headlines that scream ‘retention’. Maybe if we started thinking about retention as ‘continuously winning’ there would be.

During the pandemic, when many clients stopped searching for new partners and pitching was more or less off the table, agencies doubled down on over-servicing existing clients out of necessity and started actively using their high client satisfaction stats in the pitches that did happen.

With the raft of challenging and changing external factors and relentless internal focus on budgets, effectiveness, efficiency and the various continuous planning loops, clients need top advice, great strategy and transformative ideas more than ever. They’re also taking long looks at their marketing ecosystem and asking big questions about the best way to deliver: The how as well as the what

That all means it truly has to be the Age of Retention. Now is the time to openly examine the ways you as an agency discuss, reward and elevate retention. It should be as important in all the same ways as new business is. To help, we’ve gathered some questions, some observations and some suggestions to ponder and probe.

1. Hold up the mirror - get curious

To get all of these things right, agencies need to get curious. They need to ask questions of themselves, and their team:

  • Do you have the right information to deliver an objective, informed and useful view across your client base?
  • Are you totally reliant on red flag alerts from your business/ client service team?
  • What are you measuring to inform you and your Exec/ Board?
  • What would genuinely help your teams to deliver better for your clients?
  • Is your retention MI informing Exec/ Board discussions about your operational and investment strategy? Or is it a tick box exercise?

2. Measure what matters - what informs your strategy

A group marketing director once told me: “you can either get measurement that tells you the truth or measurement that backs up your story; choose wisely and don't be seduced by fool’s gold”. We measure what we value, don't we? Ask yourselves these questions with your retention MI data in front of you:

  • Are you measuring the right things?
  • Are you measuring regularly enough, and in the right way?
  • Are you measuring certain things because you always have done?
  • Are you in a healthy groove, or in a reassuring rut?
  • Is your measurement useful?
  • Is it encouraging discussion and debate?
  • Is it used to drive change? Or used to blame…
  • Would your clients recognise and applaud the approach, and see the benefits?
  • Would your team be excited to see the latest MI, or dread it as it means more work or blame?
  • Who are your superstar retention people?

For some agencies the challenge might be the reverse, they have too much data and suffer from ‘paralysis by analysis’. Or it’s not remotely diagnostic and has no early warning sign intent.

If that's the case, try this challenge. If you could get rid of half of what you spend time and money measuring that adds no useful perspective or tells you what you already know, what would it be? What impact would it have? And if you had to measure three new things you currently don’t, what would they be?

3. It’s time to get sensitive - differentiated approach

Just as with price sensitivity, agencies need to start thinking about how they index, track and respond to fluctuations in their retention sensitivity. They need to be able to continuously “dipstick”, tracking what's important to celebrate progress and success, but also to lean into hard issues or difficult conversations to drive change, and continuous improvement.

Agency leaders need to be able to make informed decisions about where their array of clients are on their retention sensitivity curve, at any point in time, and to be confident in how they are tracking success. To do that they need to develop robust MI. Getting ahead of a problem is crucial, to better understand when a relationship is going off the boil so they can respond, but also to maintain that wonderful feeling that we’re “on fire” and delivering the best work ever.

Being informed of what dials and levers to change on the account in terms of capability and capacity is a must, as is knowing what not to change if it's working brilliantly, all based on robust MI directly informing your short-term choices and longer-term investment decisions.

To do this requires data that sensitively probes the relationship, enabling truth to be revealed that will drive your retention strategies. And of course, it's not a one-size approach. Retention strategies must be differentiated by different types of clients along with factors such as profitability, cross-sell potential, category and client appeal internally. Differentiation will help you trust the ‘green flags’ and get the ‘amber flags’ on the radar early enough to prevent them turning ‘red’.

Final thoughts

These are challenging times. Everyone is tight for time, facing relentless internal and external challenges; from efficiency and effectiveness, market disruption and challenger brands, to media inflation and supply chain problems. However you approach MI, the goal is the same, though: Ensuring that decisions about agency strategy, resources, talent, structure and data/ tech are being fuelled by regular objective intel, not just anecdotal hearsay and positive intent.  

These are also the times to ponder and challenge how we do things, as well as what we do.

The agility and the variety of ecosystem models and agency options available to clients makes rapid change crucial. The question is how do you continuously evolve and drive excellence, and confidently evidence excellent relationships? Retention should be as rewarding as new business, not just given a spotlight during lockdowns or as a reaction to negative feedback.

We know most agencies know this, and have their own plans and planning cycles but our challenge to you is to ask: Are we doing enough? Do we have enough data/ MI on a regular basis? Is it robust, objective, diagnostic and asking the right questions to inform change and drive better retention? Would our clients and our teams agree?

This isn’t about pulling away from new business. It’s about ‘and’ not ‘or’. It’s all about balance. Simply put, is your MI telling you what you need to do to make the best decisions for your agency and, therefore, your clients? Is your retention strategy a winning one?

About The Author

VG #1

Vicky Gillan

Lead Consultant, Upskill

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