After spending five years working in UK agencies and 15 years running my own in China, I’ve seen how some clients get amazing deals, how others waste budgets and agencies take advantage. I’ve pitched with many partners and against countless competitors, I know their tricks and shortcomings too. As clients are cutting budgets, yet need increased productivity from their agencies, I decided it would be useful to share my insights to help those that need to get more for less.
In no particular order, and to save you time, my 11 lessons are:
- Ask your agency to help you write the brief
- How to push and get results
- Get real tangible value from a pitch
- Know when you can get it cheaper!
- Be transparent
- Negotiate a price that is mutually beneficial
- The jealous girlfriend method
- Define the value first
- What can you do for their leadership
- Involve the decision makers
- Align your goals
1. Ask them to help you write the brief
You are likely not as experienced at creating briefs as an agency, much like you wouldn’t tell a doctor how to diagnose your condition. Get in touch, explain your business problem earlier, they work with you to clearly define the issue you are looking to fix. Frame the problem as we call it.
Co-writing the brief will bring you a ton of value as you’ll be getting a chunk of strategy for free, and more importantly you reduce the risk of paying for something you didn’t need.
2. How to push and get results
Push a supplier? Seems simple, but there is an art to it. Marketing guru and account management professional Christopher Dixon explains, “In order for a client to get the best value for their money from an agency, a client must push their agency. When I say “push”, I mean push in the way a good coach challenges and encourages players to elevate their game to a higher level of performance.”
It’s an inspirational way of thinking, Dixon goes on to explain, “This push comes from a place of optimism, trust and a strong sense of teamwork. A client must always be mindful that they and their agency are on the same team working towards the same goals.”
When it’s all said and done a client and its agency win or lose together.
3. Get better value from your pitches
Agencies love to bemoan the pitch, but then we throw weeks of designer time trying to win one. We’re our own worst enemies, our egos take the lead and we continue to submit unpaid work for a one in five chances of winning. Unfortunately this is a vicious cycle that raises industry fees for everyone and leaves clients with a winner that isn’t necessarily the right fit. That’s exhausting for you and them. The most effective way to find an agency is to run full process pitch projects with them. This way, you’ll get to experience the chemistry, their management, turnaround time, and see if they understand your brand. Assign a budget that covers their cost, you’ll get their best work for a fraction of the cost, and unlike a pitch, it will be developed with you rather than guess work.
It’s worth noting that much of your budget is being spent on pitches the agency didn’t win! That makes no sense that you’re paying for that.
I could go on, but for more in depth advice on pitches, this is the article for you.
4. Know when you can get it cheaper!
An agency doesn’t run like the company you work for. We don’t sell products, we sell time. We can only sell what we have, and if you’re not buying, it’s still costing us money. Ask who is on your account, if they are busy at the moment, get an understanding of their workload. If they’re not busy, you’ll be able to negotiate sizable discounts. If they are over capacity it’s going to be impossible for them to deliver the hours you purchased.
5. Be transparent
In a new relationship both sides will keep their cards close to their chest for a while, but for marketeers and brand consultants to be able to do their job the best, they need to be in the loop. Too often we’ve been asked to design restaurant menus, but purchased data is kept secret. Alternatively, for retail, we’re asked to promote two products in different ways, but the campaign results aren’t shared! You’ll get better value giving your agency data to work with, better still, you can hold them accountable for it too.
Transparency is also important when it comes to expectations, clearly defining what you expect in terms of reactiveness, overtime, in person meetings, etc. helps in creating a relationship where best prices can be decided with no surprises.
6. Negotiate a price that is mutually beneficial
Obviously as an agency owner I’m likely to be biased, but the highest price isn’t always best. Pay too much and your agency will try and over deliver, for example, giving indepth research you really don’t need for your creative. Rogier Bikker of Tomorrow puts it, “Clients underestimate the impact of paying fairly on the morale of the agency, and in turn the direct correlation between morale and quality. ”
If your company needs to spend less and squeeze budgets, that’s okay because your agency can help you scope out a project within that budget. However, if they refuse or can’t go any lower, maybe it’s time to explore an alternative marketing approach. Agencies are not a product on a shelf, they are a group of people. When you squeeze budgets below what it takes to make a profit, you are showing those people you don’t value their career choice!
7. The jealous girlfriend method
My agency friends might hate me for this, however, if I was a client I’d structure it this way….
The real value is in a committed relationship, but I agree with clients, agencies can get complacent. Have a long term agency, possibly on a retainer. They should be your brand guardians, someone who knows your team, your products and your vision. Then every now and then, hire another agency for a single brief, this will not only give you fresh ideas but it will keep your lead agency on their toes.
8. Define the value first
Reducing spending doesn’t necessarily save you money, while the stakeholders may be happy you’ve reduced budgets, you may also have reduced sales and brand awareness. Both of these things are critical to maintain in an economic crisis. Sam Sterling, MD of AKQA China/Japan shared with me, “Build a hypothesis of the expected impact your initiative / project will have on your business, and validate that before you invest”
How much energy do you put into trying to work this out? Well that depends on your organisation and your role, Sam suggests the budget for this validation should be whatever your signoff limit is.
9. What can you do for them?
We train our account teams to be helpful to clients in many ways, that’s how we get your money! It works both ways though. Treat your agency like a client by helping them and you’ll be amazed at what they would do for you for free. Think about your agencies leadership and their ambitions, then think about how you can help them!
“Our team member was new in his role but with great experience and speaking skills, the client noticed he wanted to build his thought leadership; so reached out to invite him for keynote talks at major industry events”
10. Involve the decision makers
I understand this is difficult in a hierarchical society like China, but I have seen hundreds of thousands of yuan, perhaps millions, disappear due to this simple step. Key decision makers must be in both the brief with the agency and the key creative presentations.
11. Align your business goals together
Last but far from least, align your business goals. Agencies want to grow, support their teams, do killer work, and win awards. You want a promotion, sell more products, impress the CEO, be the CEO, or if you’re already the CEO then you probably want to sell your brand for millions. Hands down you’ll get the best value if your vision is shared with the agency, they are people people, and they want teamwork. Align your goals, have fun, be nice, and they’ll ignore all their other clients when you call!
Hopefully that’s some food for thought on how you may be able to better leverage your agency. If you’d like to try some of these tricks on us, you’re most welcome, at least we know where we both stand! Get in touch.
With thanks to
- Sam Sterling, of AKQA China/Japan
- Rogier Bikker at Tomorrow
- Nishtha Mehta from Collabcentral
- Victor Chi Sun at Chi-mu
- Christopher Dixon
- Marius Ionita at Kollektiv
- Vlad Alukhanov at Together
And of course, Thread Stars, Christina and Justine.