A Communications Minefield: 5 things marketers hate hearing from their agencies

We’re all in the communications industry, right? Communication of some form, at least – creating it, planning it, buying it, commenting on it or monitoring it.

So how come we’re often so bad at communicating with each other, across the agency-client garden fence?

Too often, agency staffers do not pay enough respect to the intuition of the client; or, even worse, they phrase an innocent comment in a way that is highly likely to be misinterpreted.

They haven’t read their clients properly, are not enough in tune with the people they’re dealing with and have not adapted their communication style accordingly.

And when this happens, and it backfires, the reaction is frequently similar to one of my favourite and most cherished comedy characters – Father Ted’s innocent, naïve and dumb side-kick, Father Dougall McGuire.

‘What’s the problem there, Ted?’

A lot of the time, Agencies simply don’t know when, or why, they’ve caused offence. Account leads are usually not strong enough to withstand internal pressure to communicate in a certain way (I know, I’ve been there), which wins the battle over their own common sense.

And if the client doesn’t speak up about it, the agency will forever be the Father Dougall of the relationship.

Here are five agency sayings that marketers hate hearing, and why.

Saying 1:

What the agency says: ‘You know, as an agency, we consider the entire communications eco-system – we’re completely agnostic’.

What the client hears: ‘I’m going to try and distract you from the fact that our payment structure clearly favours some channels over others by saying something modern and clever like ‘eco-system’.’

What’s the problem there, Ted? Media agency remuneration, unless there is no channel-specific financial incentive whatsoever, is always going to be perceived as ultimately biased. It’s either front end bias, such as an incentive scheme based on TV CPM performance, or relatively higher commission rates for digital media (and even within the digital scope, for search versus display versus performance) or back end bias, such as spot monitoring, ad-serving, or other associated revenue streams.

Until the media agency cost model is overhauled, the vast majority of clients simply can’t be fully comfortable in the ‘agnostic approach’ at agency level– even if the individual in question is wholly sincere.

Saying 2:

What the agency says: ‘Our job is to have an intimate knowledge of your business’.

What the client hears: ‘We’re arrogant enough to think we can obtain intimate knowledge of your business, and that we’re important enough to have it.’

What’s the problem there, Ted? Really, which third party partners have access to truly intimate details about another business? Which agency gives intimate details of its own business to clients?

There’s no need for a media agency to have ‘intimate knowledge’ of a client’s business. They need to be well versed in the challenges, the category, the competition, the consumers and in the clients they’re dealing with as team, as part of a broader organisation and as individuals.

None of this constitutes ‘intimate knowledge’ and to suggest otherwise is preposterous.

Saying 3:

What the agency says: ‘Our strategic process is unique in the market’.

What the client hears: ‘Like every agency in the country, we claim to be unique, when in fact our collective mission statements amount to the same thing, said differently.’

What’s the problem there, Ted? Differentiating any media agency from its competition by focusing on clever planning wheels and bold mission statements (as many do) really doesn’t work that well. Clients just see right through it.

Agencies are differentiated by their people, the relationship fit of those people with each client, and their ability to actually live up to the promised delivery of results. The first two of these three are largely intangible and difficult to articulate, and the third, as far as the client is concerned, can come from any internalised agency process, as long as it works.

Clients don’t even care about the strategic process or how clever it is – outcomes are all that’s of interest. That’s why the role of procurement, and the way in which agencies are assessed, need to be carefully managed during a pitch process.

Saying 4:

What the agency says: We have a fantastic agency network, offering a holistic platform of services across paid, owned and earned media.

What the client hears: We can’t wait to get in there and sell you lots of diversified services to boost our revenue.

What’s the problem there, Ted? Well, let’s be fair – agencies are in business and all businesses need to grow. But if a marketer and an agency have a scoped relationship, there’s a very fine line between having appropriate discussions with clients about other services, and hard-selling said client, who resents the hard sell even more, given that they’re already paying a retainer.

Too often, agency account leads are under serious pressure from within to improve revenue. I’ll never forget the stand-up row I had early in my career with an agency MD, in which I made the youthful assertion that as an account lead, I wasn’t there to sell, I was there to service, manage and lead. No – you’re a salesman, we’re all salesmen’ was the blunt, hardened reply.

This person, in some ways, was right. But not when it comes at the detriment of a trust-based relationship. Get a scope of work sorted out in the contract that clearly defines the agency’s remit and the way in which they are allowed to engage with you on diversified services.

Saying 5:

What the agency says: We want to do something completely out of the box with this campaign, something that will make us all famous.

What the client hears: We want to win industry awards.

What’s the problem there, Ted? Clients, at least in my experience, don’t give a – well, I can’t think of the word right now, but you get the drift – about awards. They see it as insular, self-serving and, as one client put it to me, ‘arrogant for any agency to assume that the work they’ve done merits an award to the agency, when so many other people influence the work’.

Agencies should not be there to make anyone famous, other than the brands they work on, with the consumers who buy into them.

Don’t be a Dougall

Well, there you have it. Five mis-interpretations to watch out for; five thin edges that can hurt the delicate balance of agency-client relationships.

Agencies, make sure you turn up your empathy chip to volume ten – learn about the people you’re dealing with and adjust your style accordingly.

Clients, don’t be too quick to judge, but speak to your agency at a senior level if the communication style is becoming a problem – the agency will definitely want to hear about it.

It can indeed be a communications minefield. Be careful out there. And don’t be a Dougall.


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