The Trouble With The Agency Model—And How To Fix It
We are professional communicators. We know and preach the need to survey, study, and consult the recipients of our messages in order to engage thoughtfully with them. Why, then, wouldn’t every agency invest the same due diligence in growing an understanding of its clients before deciding who among the staff should support them?
Some agency CEOs and directors historically have structured their shops and departments by staffing up first and then hoping to win the business that will pay off their internal structures. However, winning the business and then trying to fit the client into the existing agency model may not align at all with the brand’s particular needs.
Why do I bring this up? Because as in most industries, no one model fits every company. Each brand exists within its own unique ecosystem—a network of internal stakeholders and external agencies with differing strengths, expectations, and responsibilities. Therefore, in spite of operating in a world where relevance is key, why aren’t all agencies taking this reality into consideration up front?
Consider the inherent dangers of this scenario: An agency pitches and wins new business, then immediately begins to mentally construct teams from among existing staff to deliver the promises. At that point, the agency team can understand only as much about the new client as was feasible before a master agreement for services was signed. Further, if any of the questions asked in initial meetings were designed primarily to impress the potential client, how valid are any “insights” gleaned from the process?
Investing In Understanding Client Needs
We are professional communicators! We know and preach the need to survey, study, and consult the recipients of our messages in order to engage thoughtfully with them. Why, then, wouldn’t every agency invest the same due diligence in growing an understanding of its clients before deciding who among the staff should support them?
Given the investment that’s always needed to win business, I surmise that those mad rushes to assemble agency teams stem from an impatience to begin work and invoicing. But that type of approach is a waste of time and resources at the client’s expense. The cost manifests in the agency’s inability to integrate effectively and subsequently, in its needless duplication of effort.
Complacency simply can’t drive agency thinking and actions. Even when leadership perceives that a dream team is ready and able to accomplish great things for a client, it’s possible that the team isn’t the right fit for that client. By the time a less-than-perfect match is discovered, it may be too late to orchestrate a course correction.
A mismatch not only can damage the confidence of amazing employees, it can ultimately discredit their work results. The double-edged sword with startup clients is that agency weaknesses are rapidly revealed because startups are constantly prototyping, iterating, and (perhaps even more so than other clients) don’t have time to waste .
Imagine taking the wrong staffing approach with a mega brand. The mismatch could take many more months than with a startup to come to light. Not only would additional time, energy, and resources be wasted, the cost of lost opportunities just might multiply.
Long story short, due diligence during the “wooing” process can help circumvent the discomfort (and demise) of an ill-fitting relationship. But due diligence isn’t a “one and done” undertaking. It can’t start and stop at the point when the client team has been implemented.
Building A Better Relationship Model
A better way forward would be to partner with brands, understand their internal landscapes, customize agency teams to serve them, and then re-evaluate both the client and agency environments regularly to help ensure agile response to evolving needs and realities. The time invested in getting to know clients better, add staff or shift teams to meet specific needs, and modify the talent strategy when appropriate can help ensure that both agency and client resources are being utilized smartly.
In my experience, the best partnerships stem from a shared purpose and commitment. To foster relationships that resonate beyond a single project or contract, agencies and clients must be on the same page regarding who and what is needed to service the account and deliver success.
This approach reflects a seismic shift in priorities toward engaging in authentic, candid communication about and with the client. The team implementation process may take a bit longer, and additional hours may be needed for ongoing review of human resources needs and solutions, but the end result will be worth it. Savvy shifts in the modus operandi can foster positive change in team performance and the agency-client relationship.
As an operations person, I love process, predictability, and planning. But what will be needed to service an account can’t become a foregone conclusion. While pre-placing teams and touting the ability to “hit the ground running” may seem wise, these practices are not realistic in the dynamic environment that exists for most brands. Haphazard talent management leads to turnover that unnecessarily inflates fees.
Instead, it’s time to challenge tried-and-true complacency. What’s needed is a more relevant approach to managing practices and teams based on:
- getting to know clients better first
- developing a staffing model that leverages existing strengths and new talent, as necessary
- responding nimbly when change is appropriate
Only in the presence of such transformative action will clients be served in the same on-demand, in-the-moment way in which smart brands engage consumers.