6 Attributes Clients Look For in an Ad Agency Partner

Kristian Gough
Kristian Gough



In the U.K. alone, there are 26,000 marketing and related service providers. That makes selecting a new agency partner somewhat of a challenge for clients, especially when it comes to recognizing the charlatans from the masters. However, for agencies, it also means slogging it out against a mountain of equally qualified and creative competitors.

What do clients look for in an agency, and how can both sides adapt the process to encourage greater synergy and success?

Here are six things clients should be and are now demanding from their partners. They also serve as tips for those agencies wanted to make small service improvements to build longer lasting client relationships.

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1. Experience and Industry Knowledge

Finding an agency with the kind of background you are looking for may seem like a simple enough jumping off point, but increasingly, clients are looking for agencies that provide a differentiated but effective service offering that matches their objectives.

According to SoDA, a growing number of clients are turning to smaller agencies or specialized digital shops that offer strong technical capabilities and can deliver against specific digital marketing initiatives and equip them with a competitive edge. As outlined in the SoDA report 2014, nearly 70% of brands believe “being seen as an early adopter of new technologies in their marketing efforts is key or important to their brand position.”

This makes agencies that have their finger on the pulse of emerging trends and have an in-house team ready and able to respond to those trends and pass them onto their clients a highly favorable option.

In addition, client-side marketers are increasingly looking for agencies with experience that reflects their sector as opposed to clear cut examples of work within the discipline.

We often remind client-side marketers that they don't always need an agency with sector specific industry expertise. Instead, they are better looking for one that is engaged in helping them deliver against KPIs. And indeed, this is becoming an attractive attribute for clients.

To this end, understanding a business and its consumers makes an agency more likely to suggest concepts that fit the overall arc of what a client is looking to achieve.

2. Chemistry

Agency search and selection is a lot like dating. Compatibility does not just include shared history and objectives but incorporates how well your teams click and your ability to speak each other's language. While many clients believe getting the job done is more important than personal chemistry, according to a recent poll by PRCA, cultural similarities do dramatically aid the creative process, as our experience in agency-client matchmaking has shown.

Personality clashes or a misalignment of ethos or creative standards can all lead to poor performance and stressful communication between an agency and a client business.

A team that looks good on paper does not always signal magic in the boardroom. You need compatibility and cultural harmony.

One of the ways to safeguard against chemistry mismatches is to open up channels of communication before a pitch. To that end, 90% of clients say they would be willing to speak to agencies ahead of a pitch, as research for our Mind the Gap whitepaper, which aimed to measure the miscommunication between agencies and clients shows.

3. Communication

It has not been unheard of for an agency to send in its ‘A-team’ to a pitch for business only to swap in a junior team once awarded the client account. While this practice is changing, it is unfortunately still far from uncommon and does little for client-agency relations.

We recently conducted a study of client marketers and found that while 50% of client marketers believe the ultimate decision maker is always present in the pitch, just 20% of agencies say that this is the case.

Forking out for junior expertise cloaked in a senior price tag is less that desirable. Agencies need to assure clients that the ideas, processes, and creative flair they are seduced by at a pitch are coming from the same minds that will be managing the day-to-day running of the account.

It’s no longer unheard of for client-side marketers to request interviews with any staff that may be placed on their account, especially for key roles such as creative directors and lead account managers. Agencies would be well advised to be as up front as possible about the structure and seniority of a potential client's team as, in our experience, it is one of the biggest issues for clients.

Equally, client-side marketers tell us they want to be able to communicate freely with their agency. Many are keen to have the boundaries for what is and is not acceptable for both sides outlined in the beginning. What happens, for example when the client needs the agency to drop everything and turn something around in a hurry? Would this be acceptable or impossible for the agency? After all, there would be little point for two teams to work together if one cannot deliver what is expected — no matter how great the work.

4. Understanding of the Business

As you may now have noticed, there is a theme that underpins most of these attributes, and that is the ability to communicate. As any half-decent marriage counsellor will tell you, communication is key. Getting under that skin of a business is the cornerstone of any good campaign. Everybody likes to feel listened to. If an agency works to really understand its client's businesses, then it will be able to build a strong and effective working relationship.

Clients should be encouraged to talk about their business. By doing this, they will quickly find out if the agency team is engaged by the kind of questions they ask in return. This dialogue gives clients a feel for whether the agency is able to understand the business objectives.

That is to say, clients are looking for teams that can execute specific strategies while keeping larger, long-term goals in mind.

5. Response to the Brief

One of the biggest turnoffs for clients is when an agency has failed — at least in the eyes of the client — to deliver an insightful brief. The reason for this could stem from a misunderstanding of the business and its objectives by the agency or even a poorly constructed RFP from the client themselves.

In terms of the budget for example, 65% of client-side marketers say unrealistic budget expectations from agencies are a problem in more than half of all pitches. But agencies say that just 10% of briefs come with a specific budget outlines.

Other common mistakes agencies make with briefs is failing to adhere to brand image, misunderstanding the audience, or offering unrealistic timeframes.

To avoid issues such as these, clients need to be as upfront as possible with their budget and objectives. Equally, agencies need to work with this in mind.

6. Transparency and Value

At the end of the day, an agency is in business to create value for its clients. Clients want a team they can be confident in, and they need an agency that is confident in its own abilities and value proposition. Clients want agencies that are results orientated, run operations with integrity and professionalism and have a defined and disciplined business and creative processes.

Just as we would expect clients to be upfront about their budgets, agencies need to be open about how and where they are spending client funds. It is vital for both sides that a budget is pinned down before it is spent. This certainly helps teams avoid nasty surprises along the way.

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