4 Top Agency Leaders Share Their Recipes for Building Stronger Client Relationships

4 Top Agency Leaders Share Their Recipes for Building Stronger Client Relationships

Agencies don’t work the same way they used to. It’s a new world, where client relationships (and collaboration) is what really matters in the journey to success.

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To really understand what’s needed to boost your business – both from the agency side, as well as the client’s side – we asked some of the world’s most respected and inspiring agency and brand leaders what their secrets are for building brand and agency relationships that don’t just last – but thrive.

Building Trust: The Key to Fruitful Client Relations

Laura Jordan Bambach, President and CCO UK at Grey, has built a career with a focus on people and communities. In 2007, she co-founded SheSays, the organization that educates, promotes, and inspires women to take up digital creative careers. For Laura, a good agency/brand LTR really comes down to good faith: “Strong and open relationships based on trust, respect, and diversity of people and thinking creates the most innovative work.”

It’s a praiseworthy principle, but how do you go about making that happen, in practice? Bambach goes on to say that lasting trust “can only be achieved by creating a safe space for client and agency partners to be comfortable being uncomfortable.”

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One industry insider who has demonstrated just how powerful the principle of pushing brands outside their comfort zone can be is Jonathan Mildenhall, Co-Founder & Chair of TwentyFirstCenturyBrand (and formerly CMO at AirBnB, SVP Integrated Marketing Communication & Design Excellence at Coca Cola). For Jonathan, trust is based on fairness, creating attractive conditions for talent to arrive and thrive: “agencies need their clients to pay fairly so that agencies can recruit and retain a disproportionate share of talent.”

Trust takes a long time to build, and can be lost very quickly. That’s why Michael Olaye, VP & Managing Director at R/GA, believes it’s critical to go beyond delivering what your client is asking for today – by anticipating what they might need tomorrow.

For Michael, “it’s about speed and flexibility, understanding challenges that today’s market brings. Not to be reactive but proactive. It’s very hard to build a brand, but it’s easy to damage it.”

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Why You Need to Adapt in Order to Grow

“Moving fast” isn’t just about being agile in response to a client’s needs – it’s about anticipating the changing world of technology, too. In a world where purpose and values drive business, rather than just quality in work, branding and marketing is becoming a task for the entire company more and more each day. For that to really work, at an agency, while maintaining client relationships long-term, brands and agencies must be prepared to learn (and grow) together.

It’s a principle Peter Soer, executive coach and former VP Marketing at Kellogg’s Europe, supports wholeheartedly. To stay relevant, he believes you have to “enable the marketing team to own the end-to-end customer experience within their organization – and to do that in today’s business climate, they need to be excellent with data and technology.”

But according to Peter, there are things to look out for – he says it’s critical to “harness the exploding world of digital possibility” but that you need to “prevent the CMO from disappearing into ridiculous hype rabbit holes” – for example, the last year’s trends in augmented reality, and voice activation.
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Michael Olaye, having seen similar patterns, agrees. Michael believes that a digitally-fluent partner (or range of partners) is essential for a future-facing brand: “a brand today consists of so many touchpoints, and the experience always has to match. You can’t be amazing on TV but terrible at services. You can’t be great at services but terrible at products. The ecosystem has gotten a lot more complex for brands, and they need agencies like R/GA to help navigate that.”

It’s a perspective that certainly resonates with Peter Soer, especially with his many years in steering multiple brands to success in various markets – in the fast-moving world of FMCG: “with the proliferation of assets, channels and possibility, agencies need to be able to own the answer… but they cannot be experts in every area, so they need to be good at getting expert help, and partner from agile expert players.”

For Laura Jordan Bambach, the extent to which these partnerships are successful depends, to a large extent, on respective teams – both on the brand’s and the agency’s side. There needs to be a willingness to collaborate, particularly through technology, to find new answers: “building and maintaining strong, collaborative, and creative relationships in the digital age is down to the partnership we build with our clients and how collaborative we are in finding new ways and technologies to help them solve business challenges.”

Jonathan Mildenhall agrees that it’s this combination of technology and creativity that’s at the forefront of what agencies and brands can achieve together, long-term. In fact, he takes it even further, insisting that we’ve already moved beyond digital, into a new age of data-fueled creativity: “We are not living in the digital age, we are living in the data inspired, creative age. Clients need their agencies to use data to inspire and validate investment in creative ideas that drive a disproportionate share of growth and community engagement.”

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Destroy to Create: Adapting to a New World of Collaboration

So, what does the future hold? The experts agree that the recent disruption caused by the pandemic is a signal to organizations and individuals to accelerate change.

Michael Olawe notes that while “Covid has been a tragic thing in the world… it has helped brands accelerate the things that they always knew they needed to do. A lot of internal innovation departments have used the opportunity to really drive change.“

For Peter Soer, the future is about accelerating agility, he believes in a world where brands and agencies are built on “self organizing teams, much less hierarchy, experts coming together, with no internal agency silos or ‘no-go’ areas.”

Jonathan Mildenhall brings it all back to ‘people.’ As we come together again, agencies and brands both need to double their efforts to create “strong environments and partnerships that allow agency people and clients to deliver their best work – together.”

In the end, all strong, long-term relationships depend on the ability to respond positively to challenges, and adapt to change. In the world of brands and agencies, technology is at the heart of this capability. As Michael Olaye puts it, “when something critical happens, digital is the elevation. Digital is a way of finding a new way of doing things."

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Silvan Zingg
Silvan Zingg
VP of Partnerships