Lee Odden

The Key to a Successful Digital Marketing Agency and Client Relationship

digital marketing agency client success

Digital Marketing success is more dynamic than ever and companies embracing everything from content marketing to predictive analytics seek outside help for strategy, implementation and consulting. However, it takes a lot more than savvy sales pitches, charismatic account management and smart creative to make a client and agency relationship work.

We’ve been in the thick of the digital marketing world at TopRank Online Marketing for nearly 14 years and I’m happy to say our biggest growth so far in 2015 has come from client retention and program expansion. Thanks to an incredibly talented team, we’ve delivered great results for clients and have weathered numerous changes in the industry and within client organizations.

There are no shortcuts to great client agency relationships though and at BMA15 I attended a presentation offering some really useful advice:

According to Robin and Steve Beohler of Mercer Island Group, there are 4 reasons clients change agencies:

  1. Client side leadership change
  2. Troubled business results from the engagement
  3. Strained relationships between those involved
  4. Agency performance perceived as sub-par

Not all of these areas are controllable, but some are.

Chemistry and capabilities both need to be a fit for a successful client / agency relationship.

What many digital marketing agencies miss is in the on-boarding process – in terms of the business and the culture. What are the expectations, communications preferences and what does the end of the day look like? Clarity on these from the start as well as continued attention is essential.

What are the causes of most digital marketing agency and client issues?

Partners often view the relationship differently. According to research presented at BMA15 by the Beohlers, in 2/3 of the relationships, views of the relationship are very different. How different?

Agencies with the strongest reviews from clients were characterized by:
Top service, strategy, creative capabilities.
Lead strength: SERVICE.

Agencies with weak reviews:
Service was the biggest issue 100%.
Strategy and creative issues 63%.

Clients that received strong reviews:
9 out of 10 agencies cited that the partnership was strong.
Client guidance (client gave great briefings and feedback) and knowledge were also strong.

Clients that received weak reviews:
Guidance from the client was the biggest issue.
Alignment of the client to the agency, followed by client’s processes (mostly approval) were also problematic.

According to a new report, Enhancing Client Agency Relationships (PDF), released by the ANA:

  • Clients and agencies don’t agree on the quality of agency briefings. Not one agency reported receiving excellent briefings.
  • Only 2% of agencies strongly agree that the client approval process works well.

So, how can digital marketing agencies and the clients that hire them improve?

The most important thing is to put the relationship first. How people feel about the others they work with is paramount. Focus on building strong relationships and make sure people feel valued.

Also recommended was to do client / agency 360’s to collect ongoing feedback and conduct routine relationship enhancement sessions.

Deep feedback during these sessions is important, because clients aren’t always direct. Sometimes agencies don’t “hear” what the client is actually telling them.

Early warning systems are critical: pick up on early warnings and get the straight scoop information. Develop a way to capture deep, qualitative feedback on what’s really important – relationships and program results.

When things are going good, the ‘importance’ scores on relationships are low. But when things aren’t going well, everything is important.

It’s essential to invest in the processes of managing expectations and the relationship. There are significant costs to change agencies for both clients and the agency:

Client Costs:

  • Added expense
  • Distraction from other work
  • Work interruption
  • Reputation hit

Agency Costs:

  • Lowers revenue
  • Staff risk
  • Growth plan interrupted
  • Reputation hit

There are positive impacts from doing client / agency relationship 360’s. For clients, sharing and capturing feedback fuels business growth, better creative, strategy and service from the digital marketing agency.

For agencies, a relationship check can contribute to business growth, referrals, references, profitability, and reduced churn.

Overall, marketing agencies need to be more strategic in how they manage relationships with clients. Look beyond the day to day of tactics and program management to the bigger picture of how the client agency partnership has mutual impact.

Improving relationships is not all on the shoulders of agencies. A few things most clients who hire digital marketing agencies can do to improve both the relationship and the performance of their investment include:

  • Improve guidance – give better briefs and clearer feedback
  • Internally aligned creative feedback (reduce disconnected junior staff approval vs. the actual decision maker)
  • Streamline the approval process

It takes more than smart consulting to make a digital marketing client and agency relationship work. Without a healthy understanding of expectations and clear communications, all that smart consulting goes to waste if it never gets implemented. Invest in both high performing consulting and an understanding of expectations to make the client / agency relationship work.

Agencies that focus on service as well as strategy and consulting will be more valuable to the companies that hire them. Clients that provide excellent briefs and that can streamline review/approval processes will get a much better return on the digital marketing agency investment.

Great relationships drive great work. Great work drives great business results.

Image: Shutterstock

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About Lee Odden

@LeeOdden is the CEO of TopRank Marketing and editor of Online Marketing Blog. Cited for his expertise by The Economist, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, he's the author of the book Optimize and presents internationally on integrated content, search, social media and influencer marketing. When not at conferences, consulting, or working with his talented team, he's likely on a beach somewhere doing absolutely nothing.