A Look Inside Client Heads
By Mike Carlton

The future is scary
A little love goes a long way

An Age of Discontent?

The clouds are heavy. The economy is rickety. Times are tough. Agency tenure with clients is decreasing. Chief marketing officers are churning. So are their staffs. Loyalty is disappearing. Agency layoffs abound. Yet vital talent is in short supply. Acquiring new business is more difficult and more expensive. Agency business models are stressed. Maybe even collapsing.

The future is scary.

And scores of advertising agency leaders wonder where the fun of the business has gone. Several have even said to me, “I’d never want my kids to go into the agency business.” Ouch!

Out of Touch

Amid all this unease there is the nagging specter that agencies have somehow lost touch with client senior management. Surely access to the C suite at clients has diminished for agencies. Only to see high-priced management consultants fulfilling the advisory role with client leadership that agencies once held.

Just what is going on? And what can agencies do to improve this picture?


To get a better handle on what’s happening inside the heads of client senior management we launched a series of loosely structured conversations with C level client people. This is a continuing project that began a few years ago. With some emerging patterns that are just now beginning to coalesce.

And, to me at least, some of what we learned was unexpected.


This is not a survey in the traditional sense. We have talked with something less than one hundred senior client executives who represent a wide range of industries. Company size also varies widely. So does their geography. Each has a healthy marketing budget and they speak for independent smaller and midsize marketers as well as some units of Fortune 500 companies.

No “check the box” questions here. So there are no neat statistical tabulations. Each participant was invited into a conversation. None were actively in the agency review process. The only benefit for them was the hope that their thoughts could help improve industry knowledge and possibly the effectiveness of their own agency relationship.

In advance of the conversation they each received a list of topics that they might wish to discuss. The topics were just thought starters. There was no expectation that they would follow the list. They could take the conversation in whatever direction they chose. And many did.

These are thoughtful and highly articulate people with strong opinions. They were not at all shy about voicing their beliefs.

My job was merely to get them started and then shut up. And take lots of notes. For most of them, once they got started they were on a roll. Each conversation was expected to last fifteen to twenty minutes. But surprisingly, once they got going they typically talked for over a half hour. Several for as long as an hour. They had a lot to say.

All this was on how they viewed their company’s relationship with their principal advertising agency.

Following is the list of topics they received prior to the conversation. A few followed the list, but most just chose what they wanted to talk about. And, some took the conversation in completely unexpected directions.

Conversation Topics about Your Advertising Agency

Your Business Issues
The agency’s understanding and empathy with your high-level business issues. How well aligned is the agency with the corporate aspiration of your organization? How well does the agency “get” the business challenges you face? And how effectively does the agency’s strategy and work positively impact those issues?

Your Marketplace
The agency’s grasp of and fluency in your market space. The depth and breadth of the agency’s familiarity and feel for your organization’s route to market as well as its direct and indirect competitors. The agency’s understanding of the dynamics of that market and the players in it.

Your End Customers
The agency’s empathy with your organization’s end customers. Does the agency have an informed and intuitive feel for what those customers are thinking and feeling? And how assertively does the agency champion the relationship between your organization and its customers?

The Agency’s Work
The effectiveness of the agency’s work. Does it accomplish the defined objectives? Both wants and needs. Is it inspirational? Does it have a tone and feel in full alignment with your culture and brand values? How courageously does the agency express its point of view?

New Methods
The agency’s skill, confidence and comfort with new methods (emarketing, social, mobile, etc.) of reaching and influencing your organization’s customers and prospects. Their leadership in advocating more effective and efficient ways of changing customer and prospect behaviors. Do they continually champion new initiatives?

Their Resources
The agency’s breadth of resources and its ability to orchestrate them in the most effective ways. Do the different skill sets within the agency – and outside resources they may employ – have the proper level of involvement with you and your customers and prospects? Are all the agency people, and their outside colleagues, singing from the same song sheet?

The agency’s ability to administer the business relationship with you in a way that assures careful stewardship of your interests in a “no unpleasant surprises” environment. With work done on-target, on-time and on-budget. Are they cost effective? Are they fun to work with? And are there any irritants, however small, that may be tainting the relationship?

What Would You Do
If you were the head of the agency, what would you do to make the relationship with you more productive and more enjoyable?

Recurring Concerns

Remember, each conversation was in the participant’s own words. And none of them responded to the various topics in quite the same way. No two situations were alike. So, while they shared a number of individual insights each had a somewhat different slant or point of view.

However, as the body of response from the different participants began to build some common denominators started to emerge. And sometimes framing those took some added interpretation on our part.

But without question, we saw growing alignment of their concerns about a number of key issues. And from my perspective, these were not necessarily the issues that I expected (or at least the order of importance) based on all the client surveys I have seen over the years.

Here are those key issues in order of intensity:

Fading Romance
Far and away the most persistent concern is that dullness has crept into their agency relationship. That the love is gone. This is a feeling that is difficult to measure, much less quantify. And probably very difficult to ask about directly. Or to easily articulate. That makes it terribly dangerous.

Each described his or her feelings here a bit differently. But the angst was palpable. Many noted that they felt that their agency was just kind of taking them for granted. While other agencies that aspired to their account were filled with zestful passion. It is easy to forget that C suite executives are constantly being romanced by the incumbent agency’s competitors.

The irony here is that every agency understands the importance of emotion in any relationship while forgetting to let clients know how much they are loved. And many C suite executives felt that love had withered.

The epiphany here is that lack of love is never the announced reason for an agency dismissal, but that it apparently is often the insidious silent root cause

Understanding our Market
A distant second to a fading romance is the belief, rightly or wrongly, that the agency does not have a strong feel for the mood and feelings of the client’s customers or the ever-changing dynamics in their marketplace. This is coupled with a vague sense that the agency really doesn’t care enough to spend the time needed to fully understand their market.

Comments like, “The agency talks a good game but I’m not sure they really get what is going on in our marketplace or truly understand our customers” were repeated by too many of the participants. But often in a tone of vague unease rather than a hard declarative statement.

It seemed that there was a widespread disconnect here. Many agencies are quite proud of their knowledge in their client’s markets. While some senior client people believe otherwise.

Work Administration
Not surprisingly, this concern comes in a close third. Failures in on-target, on-time and on-budget delivery of work causes all kinds of embarrassment to key client people. While no one situation is usually in itself a big problem there is a perception that the agency doesn’t realize the damage sloppiness causes.

C level clients understand the complexity of the work the agency is doing for them. And they recognize that their own people are sometimes the cause of (or at least exacerbate) work administration problems. Yet they also feel that the agency doesn’t fully grasp the embarrassment small screw-ups can cause their people. Or the resentment that engenders toward the agency.

Parade of People
Over and over clients said, “No sooner do we get the agency people working on our account up to speed than they change. And we have to start relationship building all over again.” Clients understand that staffing churn is part of any business. And they recognize that turnover is a problem within their own staff.

Having said that, they acknowledge that any staffing change (on either side) stresses the agency relationship. But too often those stresses are caused by what they perceive to be unnecessary agency internal organizational changes. Damage to the agency that is self-inflicted.

In fact, some cynical clients believe that the only time they hear from agency senior management is when their agency team is being reorganized.

One of the unexpected concerns was the client belief that their agency lacked the agility to move quickly and decisively to address new client needs. That the agency’s conservatism and bureaucracy got in the way.

This concern is most likely linked to the increasingly short time spans in which client executive performance is judged. They pointed out that their performance is measured by immediate results. So they need to be able to respond quickly to changes in market behaviors. Rapid changes in direction are not uncommon, and in fact should be expected.

They fully understand the economic value of their company’s brand position and the importance of protecting and growing it. Yet they sometimes feel that agencies use brand arguments – which one CMO described as “tiresome” - as a means of avoiding dynamic – and often disruptive - program changes.

Another surprise is how few clients exhibited concern over their agency’s creative abilities. Conventional wisdom would tend to put this issue at or near the top of the list. Reading the trade press reports on agency change would certainly validate that view.

But for many of the folks we talked with their currency is marketplace effectiveness. Period. They like the idea of creative solutions. But they see them as just a subordinate means of accomplishing customer behavioral change. Some feel that their agency is a bit self-indulgent when it comes to creative work. And may not always put the client’s best interest first.

Perhaps agencies are just more enamored by creativity than their clients are.

The fact that this issue was well down on the list was also surprising. Clients seem to realize that any one agency, no matter how big, cannot have expertise in everything the client might need. They generally accept that.

And in fact, they appear to only get upset when their agency professes to have strengths in areas that they really aren’t very good at.

Yet orchestrating the variety of communications tools available to clients is a big and continuing challenge. They recognize that in the past agencies routinely did this. But some now see integrated program coordination as beyond what they should expect from their agency.

Thus, a popular course has been to move this coordination function back within their organization. However, the results have not been overwhelmingly successful. Some have also used outside consultants to help. But this is a nagging unresolved problem with no clear path to a common solution.

So getting harmonious coordination of all their marketing communications vehicles remains an elusive goal.

Obviously, there were a lot more issues. But many of them reflected unique situations. And they did not appear to cluster in meaningful ways.

Inside Client Heads

So that’s what we have learned so far from C level clients. It is not a statistical picture. Certainly not perfect research. But rather the story of an interwoven series of individual personal feelings. And each cluster of issues will have different implications for each client and each agency.

On the whole, the picture is brighter than what we might have expected. The folks we talked with have a keen understanding of the challenges their agencies are facing. And considerable empathy for the travails of those shops.

They want good, productive, strong and enjoyable relationships with their agencies. And they would welcome closer ties with their agencies’ senior leadership. Yet they were also quick to point out the pressures they are under so that time spent in personal connection with the agency must be highly productive.

The Good News

The most encouraging sign is that the most important – and most dangerous - concern, maintaining the love, is the easiest for agencies to fix. A little more attention to this issue by agency senior management can pay big, big dividends.

Long-term marriages survive because of constant effort in reaffirming the love. The same thing is true in client/agency relationships. The primary message here is that when an agency allows the relationship to go stale, it will ultimately die.

And the agency is responsible for that death.

I am reminded of the words of my mother, “A little love goes a long way.”

© Carlton Associates Inc.

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