Agency Leaders on How to Build Trust 5 months ago

With increasing concerns about trust and transparency within today’s agency-client relationships, we turned to a few agency leaders for their take on how to actively build trust with clients below.
“Before we can make true progress, we must address a critical issue. That issue is trust. As the industry and consumer marketplace has evolved and become increasingly complex, there are challenges and concerns related to trust that are negatively affecting the relationship between agencies and marketers. And if we don’t have trust, we can’t grow our businesses.” –Marla Kaplowitz, President and CEO of the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4A’s), “How to Rebuild Trust in the Agency-Marketer Relationship,” Adweek

Kaplowitz is just about a year into her new role at the 4A’s, but is leading an aggressive charge to rebuild trust at the foundation of today’s agency-client relationship. This move follows last year’s findings from the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) uncovering non-transparent agency production processes, leaving many marketers cautious. In response, industry organizations have issued a rallying call and introduced a number of initiatives focused on ensuring media and production transparency specifically.

The most recent report from the ANA found ad agencies and holding companies were still engaging in non-transparent practices – with 11 of the 12 experts indicating transparency concerns exist at multiple agencies and holding companies. The impact of this has been felt industry-wide, crossing service offerings with clients demanding added transparency in addition to increased expectations to deliver ­– for more on the report, check out our recent ebook How to Be Transparent & Build a Better Agency.

We asked a few agency leaders to weigh in on how they’re actively building trust within their relationships to overcome these recent findings and client-side concerns. Here’s what they had to say.

“Communication + Transparency + Results = Long-Term Success.” –Brock Murray, COO and Co-founder, seoplus+

In a recent survey of global marketers in 35 multinational companies, the World Federation of Advertisers found transparency to be a top priority for 47% of brands, with 51% indicating it’s rising up the list, according to Econsultancy. Like any service business, trust is at the heart of healthy, successful client relationships. Agency-client relationships built on transparency earn trust – and in turn, create reliable revenue streams by positioning the agency as an ongoing strategic partner with real results and demonstrated success.

“Being transparent with clients is a must. It’s important to clearly and quickly articulate timelines, milestones, and even anticipated speed bumps. Making sure clients understand the complexity that surrounds a project without making it daunting helps us win client trust and ensures project success is always achieved…”
“Upon acceptance of a new project, our marketing team works with the client to learn about their goals, identify any challenges or opportunities, and begin crafting a strategy for the future. Once the client’s vision is understood, our design and development teams work to make the vision a reality, listening and adapting to the client’s input and concerns along the way.” –Brandon Kidd, Owner, Folsom Creative

Agencies must deepen their role from commoditized resource, merely answering an RFP or project request without asking why?, to become a strategic asset. This means partnering with clients from the start to define success while providing definitive strategic business attribution and value throughout the relationship. Transparent agency-client relationships start from the beginning with a mutual understanding of what success looks like – in order to define a framework for evaluation later on in the relationship.

George Schildge, CEO and Founder, Matrix Marketing Group, shares: “Trust is earned. With over 15 years running an agency we tend to follow this path:
–Setup expectations early, don’t promise the world.
–Analytics and attribution reporting (Scorecard).
–Be transparent.
–Admit your mistake, when they occur.
–Be transparent.”

The role and expectations for marketing is evolving with increased responsibility to deliver on bottom line impact and support organizational growth. Agencies can adapt with the change by providing ongoing reports on business results and strategic attribution. Take note of martech and adtech solutions that often emphasize a misguided focus on metrics that don’t matter to the client – with reports that fail to demonstrate meaningful ROI or provide real integrity behind the work. Marketing KPIs are important in the thick of it, but can be misleading to clients when the real value of this data is often best used for determining tactical output or next steps. Agencies and marketers can work together to carve a realistic and attainable space of value and impact for themselves, and provide a transparent view into how they’re progressing towards benchmarks and goals.

“I individualize my approach to clients. I make sure that I hear what they specifically need and want before offering options for a solution. I try to connect with them personally. A number of CEO’s have commented that I’m one of the few people who ask them how they are doing…Executives need to feel that I’m safe for them to be vulnerable with. They want someone with whom they can let their guard down. I do this by establishing a peer relationship with them early on. I assure confidentiality and am careful to maintain it.” –Christian Muntean, Principal, Vantage Consulting

In this highly competitive marketplace for agencies, with consultants now competing for shared client budgets, modern agencies are providing clients with more business consulting-like services – even pushing their CMO and marketing contacts when necessary to look beyond baseline tactical references. Agencies must do this for themselves, and to outlast changes in client leadership – but to also help their clients be more successful when they can’t see the forest for the trees. Agencies must say no to RFPs where the outcome is insignificant transitional impact.  Be proactive and carve a space for your agency across the entire C-suite so your agency team is of value to the entire brand and demonstrating impact across business units. Be seen as a strategic asset to the executive team in lieu of a one-off marketing service provider.

“Build responsiveness into your culture: focus on providing timely communications throughout the customer journey (from new business to customer service)…Ensure quality, not just quantity, in your timely responses. Provide training and incentives to your team to ensure the interactions are positive and productive…Empower the team. Create a process and train your team to problem-solve independently and resolve issues as they see fit (within guidelines).” –Kent Lewis, President and Founder, Anvil Media

Recent DataXU research found that 67% of brands and agencies describe the process of setting KPIs as collaborative, but they also indicated vastly different preferences for which KPIs they actually value – with brands focused on ROI and agencies generally focused on conversion rates, shares and likes.

“I believe the best way to build trust with a client, whether you’re the AOR or on a project, is to seamlessly integrate your team into their team. Helping augment their needs with the skills that you bring creates a holistic plan of attack to whatever the scope of work is. Disseminating those objectives into your team is easy if that’s your company’s mentality to begin with. We hire people at all skill levels who understand the concepts of partnership with our clients. We’re not hired guns and/or know-it-alls. We’re collaborators, supporters and teammates.” –Jake Messier, CEO, HEARD Strategy & Storytelling

Everyone, from your creatives to developers to account managers, has the potential to be a strategic asset for the agency. It starts with understanding your agency’s strategic capabilities don’t have to hinge on an outside hire (and when it comes to strategy, those are often your most expensive and challenging hires) – instead, make everyone within your agency a strategic asset by connecting all your efforts to an overall business strategy or future picture of success focused on ROI. With a clear, shared vision identified and articulated from the get-go, your agency team and clients alike will be working collaboratively towards business-level outcomes.

“Collaboration, communication and being connected to an overall strategy are imperative to agency success today, as well as their clients, which is one key reason we built Birdsnest internally as an agency years ago. Internally, it was a unifier, helping us to emphasize more clearly the service and value-add we wanted, and needed, to provide clients amongst our own team…In Birdsnest, agency teams and clients can track what’s working, what’s not and identify next steps. That kind of transparency and real-time metrics sticks with clients and leads to more SOWs for agencies. Creating Birdsnest was actually our solution for making that agency transition as seamless as possible. We needed a platform that would make it possible to manage, measure and execute a strategic relationship with clients. We needed that kind of tool, but it didn’t exist. So we built it.” – Joe Olsen, Birdsnest CEO and Co-Founder

Where agencies could once tout a focus on collaboration thru open work spaces, brainstorming sessions and ongoing reports demonstrating metrics as they related to short-term KPIs, today’s definition of collaboration reflects a mutual charge on success and needle-moving metrics. Agencies adamantly fixated on client success are fueled by strategic knowhow and backed by the full-service capabilities to address their client’s needs, overcome their challenges and maximize every opportunity. When agencies create a culture based on success as the shared deliverable, in lieu of project delivery, collaboration does not just result in more client success, but more agency growth too – with trust and transparency at the foundation of it all.

Recommended Reading & Next Steps

Birdsnest’s ebook, How to Be Transparent & Build a Better Agency, includes insights from additional industry insiders on three challenges the industry must overcome, and why your agency clients are failing you with the wrong questions, expectations and demands from the get-go. We’ll break “transparency” – a lofty theme in itself into a few takeaways and actionable recommendations written specifically for agency leadership – written by current and former agency leadership.

This must-read for agency leadership shares how to position your agency in a more strategic role to add transparency, accountability and integrity to back efforts and ultimately, build a better agency.

You’ll also learn:

  • How we got here and why “transparency” is a top priority for today’s brands and marketers
  • Why RFPs and project work may be killing your agency’s ability to be transparent
  • Where you fit within the agency-client relationship cycle based on your services and toolset
  • The top three challenges agencies face today, and how to overcome them
  • Five actionable steps for building a better and modern agency now.