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This Is What Clients Actually Want From Their Ad Agencies

Got a rocky relationship with a client? It probably comes down to communication. And to communicate better, you need to know what clients really want.

Agency work sounds so simple at first: You take on the marketing work for other companies. You’re their marketing department for hire.

And yet, it’s not an easy thing at all.

For starters, clients don’t always know what they want. They often don’t really understand how marketing or advertising works. Sometimes, they can’t even articulate what their core value proposition is.

Despite all those challenges, you still have to get their marketing to work. Because if what you do doesn’t work, your agency gets fired. (Heck… sometimes even when you can make it work, your agency gets fired.)

There is some good news here, though.

What goes wrong between agencies and clients is rarely really a budget problem. It’s not a technology problem. It’s not even a staffing problem.

It’s a communication problem.

Fortunately, that’s exactly what agencies are good at. At its very core, elemental level, marketing is communication.

You and your team are, at the most basic level, communicators. And not only that – you’re awesome communicators. You’re professional communicators.

You just need to channel some of those awesome communication skills into communicating with your clients.

Clients crave communication

Sometimes we get so focused on campaigns and deadlines and pitches that we forget that half of our work as agencies is to communicate with the clients.

In fact, that’s one of the things clients want most from their agencies.

What clients think 2017

Get your communication right, and the expectations fall to a realistic level. Your relationship will be strong enough to weather even a few failed campaigns. If you’re lucky, your clients might even stop scanning every element of your work and thinking to themselves “can we bring this in-house yet?”

Communication 101

Quick quiz: Where do you start when you want to communicate with a person or an audience? What’s the first thing you do?

Answer: You understand them.

Before you ever plan a media buy, write any copy, mock up any landing page, you aim to understand your audience. To “get inside their heads.”

A core part of understanding an audience is to know what they want. Get that, and everything else you do will be twice as effective.

So step back from day-to-day client management for a moment. Think about how you communicate with your clients, and consider what we know about what clients want from agencies.

What clients want

1. Your clients want you to understand their business – and their industry.

When the Agency Management Institute asked Chief Marketing Officers, business owners and Directors of Marketing what they wanted from their agencies, this was the #1 response: “Industry knowledge”.

It’s smart for clients to want this. If you don’t know their industry, you’re going to make mistakes and misjudgments. Will that edgy new creative work? Only if it’s a fit for industry. Does giving samples out make sense? Again – only if you’ve got the right industry.

Part of understanding their business is also understanding their business model. Without that, your strategy suggestions may not work. You may end up being focused on the wrong things.

Dave Fleet, Senior Vice President of Digital at Edelman puts it this way: “Take the time to get to know them and what they’re worried about, what they’re trying to get out there, and their aspirations. That will help you be much more effective in the programs you bring forward.”

2. Media strategy.

There is a marked difference between what clients value most and what agencies value most about the services they provide.

It’s media strategy. 23.5% of clients in a Forbes survey said media strategy was the most important area their agencies provided them with.

Compare that with what the agencies they surveyed said: Only 10% of them felt that media strategy was the most important area.

What is the most important area your agencies currently bring to your business?

This makes a lot of sense. Anyone can buy an ad, but building a full-fledged media strategy (much less executing one) requires experience and skill.

There are any one of a dozen tricks of the trade that can either make the whole strategy work or not. And that can mean tens of thousands of dollars (even hundreds of thousands of dollars) lost to the client… or a campaign that’s so successful it puts the business on a new footing.

This is exactly the sort of specialized skill that makes hiring an agency a smart move. Clients are right to value it, and agencies might want to be more vocal about explaining how their media strategy skills can help their clients.

3. Creativity.

This comes up in study after study.

It’s no surprise that client go to agencies for their creative expertise.

But we’d be wrong to not mention how important truly creative, standout work is to clients.

As clients’ industries get more competitive, it becomes harder and harder to get a message out. And so clients rely on their agencies to come up with the big idea that transcends bulk media buys and broadcast-style advertising.

In other words, they don’t want you to help them be the loudest voice in the room.

They want you to help them be a unique voice in the room.

What clients value in their relationship with the agency

4. More consumer insights.

This point often gets overlooked by agencies, but clients would like to see far more consumer insights from their agency partners.

23% of clients in a Forbes survey mentioned this as their top priority, yet only 10% of agencies say they want increased involvement in consumer insights.

Perhaps if agencies knew how important this was to their clients, they’d be more motivated to offer it.

What area would you like to see more contributions from your agencies?

5. Communicate what you’re best at.

This point is more for the beginning of the client relationship, but it’s very clear that “clients want a website to quickly show them what the agency is best at”. In a 2017 survey of UK agency clients, 90% of the respondents mentioned this. It’s a big deal.

But there’s another real zinger to this: Clients believe most agency websites fail to communicate this difference.

What clients think of agencies' websites

6. Get more results with less budget.

You already knew clients want this. Everybody knows clients want this. And though it’s brain-dead obvious that our clients want us to keep costs low while we still get ever better results, it still needs to be said.

So there. We’re saying it.

But there’s a whole other level to this that might not be immediately obvious.

Just saying “get more results” is kinda squishy. What kind of results? More sales? More leads? More website traffic, share of voice?

You need to know all that. You and your client need to be in 100% agreement on it, too.

“100% agreement” would mean you’ve defined specific, measurable metrics to track. And those metrics will need to be tied into their business model.

So actually, “get more results” implies that you understand your clients’ businesses. It means you know what their business goals are. And it dictates that all the work you do on your agency’s side is tied to those business goals.

That’s a totally different mindset than “We need some new ads”. Or “we need an email campaign.” But you need to get specific and find out what their business goals really are.

Without this, your agency could be chasing meaningless metrics for your client. When that happens, even if you “succeed” with the superficial metrics, you can still get fired because the actual business results weren’t there.

So once again, communication is key. Your agency needs the fullest picture possible of what your client really means when they say they need “results”.

7. Show them quantifiable results.

This is basically the second phase of the prior point. Once you know what your client really considers to be “results”, you need to work with them or to guide them to tie some concrete, trackable metrics to those goals.

And then you need to track those goals.

So when the quarterly meeting comes around and your client says “What have you done for me lately?”, you’ll be able to point to hard numbers and say “we moved this metric from here to here” and have it be a positive, meaningful business result. A result worth the money they’re paying you.

One of the best ways to do this, of course, is through reporting. Reliable, easy-to-understand reporting.

Don’t underestimate the “easy to understand” part, either. If your reports are confusing, clients may not tell you…. They’ll just tune out the reports. That means they’re tuning out the proof of the results you’re working very hard to get.

Not a good scenario.

But if those reports are clear, it’s a totally different story. Ethan Martin, Company Director at Lab Rat Creative upgraded their reporting system to produce simple, automated reports that clients could understand easily. And because the reports were automated, the client saved several hours of work every week.  

How Lab Rat is using infographic marketing reports to combat data ambiguity

The end result? Less work, reports that were far easier to understand, and a way to communicate progress to their client.

Good reporting is a critical channel for good communication.

Final Thoughts

These tips will help you get started. But every client is different and every employee on your client’s team is different. To really understand them, you need a trick from the old classic book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People”.

It’s a simple trick, really: Just imagine yourself in their shoes.

Try – try really hard – to see your agency as they see your agency.

If you need more information to do that, ask them. They’d probably be happy to tell you. They want you to be great, after all. Nobody wants to have to spend the time and effort to find a new agency. They want to like you. So help them like you: Do your best to understand and then deliver what they want.

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