Don’t get mad, get smarter

The best response to in-housing is to understand what clients want, and do a better job of delivering it, says Mike Maynard

Often agencies react more strongly when they lose business because a client takes work in-house than when they are replaced by another agency. This is wrong: it makes the client-agency relationship adversarial and reflects a total misunderstanding of what clients want.

I have previously been client side, and although there does appear to be a cycle of in-housing and using agencies, the truth is that clients normally have good reasons to move work from agencies to in-house teams. It’s also simple for agencies to respond. Here is the secret: Understand what your client wants, then do a better job of delivering it.

Agencies are a wonderful place to work because learning and development is the top priority. Competitive agencies are always looking at what you do and try to work out how to replicate your services, so there is no option other than continuous improvement.

Clients, however, are different.

The vast majority would love their current agency relationship to be successful and long-lasting. There is little benefit to them in switching agencies or even bringing work in-house. The best possible outcome is for them to take the credit for selecting an agency that does great work. However, this means that the agency must do the right things well.

Most agencies generally do things well. It’s almost impossible to maintain an agency business if you are not good at marketing disciplines in which you specialise, as clients will soon realise and bring the engagement to a premature end.

On the other hand, agencies don’t always do a good job of finding out what clients want, and clients rarely tell the agency without prompting. I’m not talking about the mechanics of the briefing process, but there’s always more than can be covered in a brief. When agencies do the wrong thing, even if they do it well, it makes a compelling case to bring work in-house.

Maybe it’s a need for greater responsiveness. Perhaps there’s a tactic the client doesn’t value, and the agency keeps pushing it as an important part of the mix. Maybe the client simply needs the analysis of the results presented in a different way to help them win over the board. It’s all too easy for agencies that are trying to improve the things that don’t matter to a client.

At Napier, we’ve had some great success with using payment-by-results: as money is at stake, it seems to make clients more open about what they need. We also regularly ask clients for feedback. Despite this, I know we’ve sometimes misunderstood what really matters to clients and focused on delivering the wrong things.

As we enter 2020, I’m going to commit to understanding what our clients want. I will take the advice from an early mentor of mine who often said: “Just ask the question”. I’m sure this will be the best way to understand what clients need and ensure that we simply don’t have to worry about in-housing as a threat.

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