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In Difficult Times, Do you Need an Agency, or an Ally?

In a survey for The Cannes Lions Festival, both clients and agencies stated overwhelmingly that the most important factor of their mutual relationship was trust.


Clients needed to trust agencies were acting in their best interests, in return Agencies expected complete transparency from their clients.


That survey was taken in 2014, the reality is truer now than it was then… and becoming increasingly complicated.


In an environment where comms professionals are being challenged with proving ROI to access even the most meagre of budgets agencies, in turn, are being briefed with business problems rather than comms problems.


It’s a subtle shift in language but an important one.


Tasking agencies with business problems represents an acknowledgment of the power of communication to make significant change within a business as well as an indication the measurement of data and actioning of learnings taken, leads to more accurate predictions of engagement activity performance.


This is both a boon and a burden to comms teams. A boon because the gathering and understanding of data is taking the guesswork out of creating and implementing successful engagement campaigns. A burden because stakeholders are expecting to see robust proof of success before unlocking budgets. But success is not won by the pertinent use of data alone. Engagement of an increasingly diverse audience with individual needs across multiple channels necessitates a combination of data-driven insights, planning, and not a small amount of creative magic.


In his frankly brilliant book Hitmakers, Derek Thomson breaks down exactly how engagement works,


“Most consumers are simultaneously neophilic, curious to discover new things, and deeply neophobic, afraid of anything that is too new. The best hit makers are gifted at creating moments of meaning by marrying new and old, anxiety, and understanding. They are architects of familiar surprises.”


Data is great at taking care of the neophobic side of the audience, the whole point of the neophilic appeal is that it’s hard to predict.


Expectations of guaranteed success will only get tougher as budgets are squeezed tighter post lockdown. To complicate matters further for internal engagers, informing and educating staff on the practicalities of the “new normal” in the workplace will be a communications minefield in need of some really smart, creative thinking to navigate.


This is exactly when a partnership of the client’s insight and intimate knowledge of their business, with a trusted partner’s talent and scientific understanding of audience engagement, becomes vital.


However with clients managing a widening portfolio of agencies each with their own specialism and agenda, not to mention an increasing amount of stakeholders with their hands on the purse strings, “one team one dream” soon becomes “many teams, multiple interpretations of a dream”, focus, accountability, and ownership go out the window and trust is weakened.


This lack of alliance between a tight team of the right people with clear responsibilities all pulling for a common goal with a cast-iron argument is the main reason many innovative projects fail to make it off the starting blocks.


So what’s the answer?


Monolithic, traditional agencies have historically held the place of trust for clients, representing as they did a single point of contact for strategy through to creative when channels were limited. But with technology, platforms and culture constantly evolving the old acronyms simply can’t keep up.


A notable few production companies have tried to add the strings of strategy, creativity, and account handling to their bows but it’s very hard to teach old dogs new tricks, especially when the new tricks can’t be billed out at an hourly rate and require subtlety of thought.


This being the case it’s unlikely that the genie of a portfolio of specialist shops is going back in the bottle.


What’s needed is a new approach, tailored for the challenges of comms teams today and future-proofed to move at the speed of what’s to come.


A model that provides constant focused support from a small team of high-level experts with a deep-seated knowledge of the business in a collaboration with clients, backed by an expanding portfolio of specialist creative and production partners allowing for teams to be assembled in whatever shape or form the task demands.


A relationship with a trusted selection of diverse thinkers who feel like they’re an extension of your team and can be called on not just when there’s a brief to crack on a pre-defined problem, but when there’s a stubborn knot in the business that needs a few friendly brains to help unpick.


When times are tough everyone needs an ally.



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