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Clients: The Mysterious Creature

  |  May 9, 2011   |  Comments

Four insights into what clients want and how you can give it to them.

Ah, the wily client!

So desirable! So necessary! And yet…so mysterious!

For those of us on the agency side (especially agency leadership), so much of our time is spent stalking the elusive New Client. We know they're out there - not a day goes by that we don't see evidence of new opportunities in the industry media - but the ones we want seem to be beyond our grasp. And even if we get the chance to court them, it's difficult to know what will make the difference between getting hired or getting kicked to the curb. What do they want? What could we have done better? Where did the pitch go wrong?

I've been doing agency new business for about 15 years now and I don't think I'm alone in having these feelings after losing a pitch. The whole process is unpredictable and more than a little opaque. Sometimes you win when you feel like you've bombed and other times you lose after feeling that you gave the performance of a lifetime.

What do clients want? Isn't that what all us agency folks are trying to figure out? Sure we are! That's why I was utterly transfixed by a new study out from agency business development consultancy RSW/US.

RSW/US tapped its database of 20,000-plus client-side marketing decision makers from major brands in order to find out what they think about their current agencies, what they're looking for when they hire a new one, and what they're looking for from the agencies that come in to pitch them. Their report "2011 Survey – Client's Look Ahead at Agencies" contains some incredibly useful insights.

1. Clients aren't all that happy with their primary agency.

If you think that your relationship with your client is a good one, you may want to think a little harder. RSW/US found that only 44 percent of marketers were "happy" with their primary agency. However, even though the majority didn't report blissful togetherness with who they were with, more than half (55 percent) said that they'd go with the same agency again if the account came up for review. Perhaps the unknown is more frightening than who they know?

What causes client unhappiness? The top three answers from the survey are pretty illuminating. When asked what caused their lack of satisfaction, the clients answered that they weren't happy with their agency's strategy or thinking (40 percent), weren't happy with the creative (37 percent), and weren't happy with their agency's "proactivity" (28 percent). Individually, none of these responses are surprising, but they do point out that being hip with the trends isn't as important as bringing solid strategy, creative, and account leadership to the client every day.

2. Marketers don't think that traditional agencies know digital (but they wish they did).

If you ever want to turn a friendly inter-agency conversation into a shouting match, all you have to do is bring up the "digital vs. traditional agency" question. Depending on how much expense-account booze has been consumed, it may not be long before shouts of "dinosaur!" and "whippersnapper!" fill the room. I don't know about you, but at this point I usually find it best to grab my drink and find a group of outlaw bikers to hang out with…you know, a safer group.

It may be a stereotype that "traditional" full-service agencies aren't good at digital, but it's one that clients believe, too. The survey found that a mere 18 percent of marketers felt that full-service agencies have solid digital skills…a number that's actually down from 22 percent in 2010. On the other hand, 29 percent of marketers surveyed felt that digital agencies had solid traditional advertising skills.

So are clients looking to move their business to digital agencies? Apparently not. In fact, based on the facts that 67 percent didn't believe that digital firms could survive as "digital only" and that 49 percent believed that over the next three to five years, traditional agencies will win more than digital-only agencies. While clients aren't too keen on the current traditional agencies when it comes to digital, it looks like they really hope they up their game.

So what's going on? RWS/US's analysis points to a growing awareness (and need) for more traditional planning, buying, and analysis skills when it comes to digital. "The more sophisticated Marketers get in the digital space," they posit, "the more they will demand smarter planning, better buys/placements, more actionable analytics, and more strategic integration with other media in the mix." In short, RWS/US believes that clients want the kinds of skills "traditional" agencies have been perfecting for decades. And even though 55 percent of marketers have shifted up to 30 percent of their marketing budgets to digital, only 6 percent reported that they were "very likely" to use a digital-only firm in the future.

If you're a digital-only firm, it looks like you'd better get a lot savvier when it comes to media or risk being shut out as the traditional agencies hire digital talent. For traditional agencies, it may be time to start looking to acquire the digital talent you're missing.

3. Who you are, who you know, and when you call matter the most when it comes to getting on "the list" during an agency search. I

f you do new business for your agency, you know that getting on the list of potential firms is more than half the battle when it comes to winning new business. However, even though all of us who fight these battles on a daily basis have our own theories about how to get on "the list," (mine involve phases of the moon and observing the behavior of cats) trying to figure out why one agency got the call to participate and another agency didn't seems like a black art. According to the RWS/US survey it's mainly a matter of fit, networking, and timing.

Forty-nine percent of the companies that responded to the survey reported that they used three or more agencies in 2010…good news if you're looking to get your toe in the door somewhere. In choosing their agencies, 69 percent reported looking at three to five firms during their agency review process. Interesting, but so far not all that surprising or enlightening.

What is surprising, however, is how clients found those agencies. The top criteria for agency selection was "Agency Specialty/Type" (43 percent) followed by "timely approach by an agency" (41 percent), and recommendations from others (about 37 percent...the question spanned two categories of referrals).

Amazingly, 29 percent of respondents cited "quality and content of [agency] web site" as a major factor. Even more amazingly (and a finding that'll certainly irk creatives), only 10 percent reported that "awards won" by an agency factored into their decision process.

What does all this mean? While I apologize for reporting this because of the ulcers it may cause, two of the top three selection criteria are pretty much out of your control. You can't change your agency's specialty and you can't do much about word of mouth (beyond doing good work). Your agency is what it is. You can keep up regular contact in order to tip the odds in your favor that you're going to call at an opportune time, you can make sure that you've got a killer website, but it appears there's no "magic bullet" when it comes to getting on the list.

If you want even more confirmation that there's no "secret trick" to getting on the list, you only have to look no further than the findings on social media. While we've all been pretty convinced at this point about the importance of social media in building our agencies' reputation, it turns out that only 11 percent of clients reported that they "always" used social media when looking for agencies. Why? I don't think you'll be surprised: 55 percent said they had no time, 26 percent said that agency social media (blogs, Facebook, tweets) were "rarely useful," and 22 percent complained that they couldn't find content specific to their industry. For the clients that reported incorporating social media into their agency search, the big winners (in terms of influence) were agency blogs: 54 percent of respondents who used social media read agency blogs while only 28 percent looked at Facebook pages and a mere 18 percent looked at Twitter.

4. Nobody cares about your agency.

OK. Maybe that was a tad harsh. But when it comes to what makes a difference in pitches and winning the business, the clients who responded to the survey were pretty clear: know your prospect, understand their market, offer creative solutions, and don't talk about yourself too much.

When it comes to the pitch, the message is clear: clients want to know that you get them. When asked "what aspects during the impression helped you decide," 77 percent reported "understanding your [the clients'] market" as central to the decision. Creative came in second, with 72 percent citing it as a major factor. Other important factors included "understanding your [the clients'] company direction" (63 percent) and "offering something fresh and new" (60 percent)…both arguably variations of understanding the client and presenting great creative.

Some of the most common elements of agency pitches were much farther down the scale in terms of importance. Knowing what other clients you've worked for only mattered to 28 percent of the respondents and only 26 percent reported that "relevance of case studies" was a factor that helped them decide to hire an agency or not. If you've ever been stuck in your office late at night trying to dredge up old case studies or client logos for a pitch, feel free to scream now.

Many of these factors may buck "conventional wisdom," but they make sense: you're already there in the room because they know you have the basic chops to do the job. What they want isn't a regurgitation of credentials but a demonstration that you've thought long and hard about their business and have great ideas to solve their issues. Sure, it may be prudent to spend some time recapping (briefly!) the highlights of your agency, but if you come in and talk about yourself and can't demonstrate that you've done your homework, you're doomed.

The client may seem like a mysterious creature, but if there's one thing that the survey shows it's that clients are just like us. We get twitchy when we're not receiving the attention we think we deserve, we don't want to hop around to different places when we have a problem we need solved, we are more likely to trust others who've been referred to us by friends and who have something in common with us, and - most importantly - our favorite subject is usually "me." It's just human nature. And based on the results of this survey, it looks like new business success really comes down to treating prospects like people, not like mysterious creatures.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sean Carton

Sean Carton has recently been appointed to develop the Center for Digital Communication, Commerce, and Culture at the University of Baltimore and is chief creative officer at idfive in Baltimore. He was formerly the dean of Philadelphia University's School of Design + Media and chief experience officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc.

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