Ten tell-tale signs it may be time to re-evaluate your agency

06 Jun 2016

Sometimes things just don’t feel right. Relationships between clients and agencies are complex, and it can be hard to put your finger on exactly what’s going wrong. And, there are always two sides to the story.

Agencies have plenty of issues with client behaviour too sometimes. In some cases, the relationship can be saved with good, open communication and a shared sense of goals from both sides. Sometimes, unfortunately, it can’t. After doing this for over 40 years at AAR (not me personally, obviously!), here are the top reasons we hear from clients as to why they may choose to review their agency arrangements.

1 –  “The magic has gone”

A fall in the quality of the work your agency is producing is obviously one of the biggest reasons for a change. It’s not always a dramatic difference; it might just be that the ideas feel stale, lack innovation or creativity, or don’t have the spark they used to.

2 –  “They’re not servicing my account properly”

This complaint covers a multitude of sins, from requests taking longer to be fulfilled to not hearing from the senior staff who were involved in the early days of the relationship. It all points to the suggestion that the agency is more interested in winning new business than retaining existing clients, and has moved its best staff around to help it do so.

Agencies seem not to realise how significant this is for clients, but it has a corrosive impact on the overall relationship, with recent AAR research revealing half of clients say it means they need to rebrief and to recheck things, and that it results in a loss of business understanding.

3 –  “They changed my account guy without telling me”

Related to the above is the situation where the person handling your account, who you know and trust, is replaced by someone else. You don’t know the new person, you didn’t ask for the change, and you weren’t given a choice. Even though it may not be the agency’s fault, it’s very human to be unsettled by this. And it also explains why people leaving agencies to start out on their own so often take their clients with them.

4 –  “They’re too busy to grow as I grow”

Finding that your agency no longer has the capacity to handle the work you need doing is one of the most traumatic reasons for re-appraisal. After all, it’s the success of the work they’ve done that’s brought you to this point. Many small agencies are also taken on with the aim that they’ll grow hand-in-hand with the client’s. But if your agency is unwilling or unable to do that, it’s time to start looking around.

5 – “I know more about this stuff than they do”

Many clients rely on their agencies to help them understand and navigate the rapidly-changing digital world. But another symptom that you’ve out-grown your agency can be when that stops happening.

 6 – “This is too important to be left to an agency”

In-sourcing started with search and really gained momentum when companies realised that social media was all about authenticity and transparency, two qualities usually better delivered by the company itself rather than its agency. Now we’re seeing content marketing being insourced to speed up the production process, while CX is increasingly viewed as too strategically important to leave to agencies.

7 – “No offence, but I want to work with people I know”

One of the biggest reasons for clients looking for new agencies is that they want to work with their own choice of partner, someone they already know and trust. And, as most agency relationships are inherited and not chosen, this is more common than you’d think. Not only is this hard on the current agency, it also risks losing the business knowledge they’ve built up during their tenure. Better perhaps to get to know them and give them a chance, rather than indulging in immediate new-broomism.

8 – “I’d like a bit on the side”

Many clients want an agency that can think about the next thing. This is the experimentation agency. Probably won’t be on any type of retainer and will work to very specific projects and won’t disrupt the retained agency. I’m seeing a lot more of this type of exploration at the moment and have been taking a lot of clients on “shopping trips” to check out what’s new and exciting in the agency space.

9 – “They’re so 2014”

Marketers are facing new channels, technologies and challenges all the time. Lots of clients find they need to add new agencies as new requirements appear. Generally, these are specialist agencies who may just do the new thing their current agencies can’t.

10 –  “I want to pay for thinking, not doing”

As production becomes commoditised and outsourced to cheaper providers, clients increasingly want their agencies to be more strategic. This is often the Achilles heel for many digital agencies who have grown up making their money from production and have given the thinking away. Clients now want to pay for the thinking, so agencies need to step up.

So…what to do?

If any of these scenarios seem familiar, it might be time for you to start looking at your agency arrangements. But before you do, it’s important to remember two things. Firstly, it may not all be the agency’s fault. They also want an open and honest relationship with their clients. If, for example, you’ve asked agencies to pitch innovation when you’ve only got the budget – or the stomach – for the tried and tested, changing agencies isn’t going to help.

Secondly, the process takes time, planning and resource. Switching agencies is not just like flipping an on/off switch. You need to think about the time you need to research and find a new agency (or have me help you!) and the process you will need to go through to make an informed decision. And no, googling top ten digital agencies in London is not a starting point!

It’s process that requires a plan, and I’ll be looking at that in my next post.

About The Author


Robin Charney


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