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Is the client still king in the agency-client relationship?

Over the last few years, the traditional agency-client relationship has evolved to become more collaborative, rather than transactional, which has in turn created a healthy environment for open, frank conversations.

The positive trend was already developing, but expedited by the start of the pandemic which, despite the immense challenges, brought many clients and agencies closer together through necessity. In a period of constant flux and uncertainty, clients were asking us different questions and leaning on us in different ways; for our part, we immersed ourselves more than ever in our clients’ businesses, not just their marketing plans, to understand how they could survive and thrive.

Speedy tactics

In some cases, this was through quick, tactical communications to reassure customers and key stakeholders. In others, it was through complete reinvention of a client’s brand identity to help them remain relevant. Collectively, we recognised that this was no time to hide behind traditional roles. The circumstances demanded frankness on both sides, in order to get things done, and there was a shared understanding that we were all in the same boat, improvising and learning to adapt as we went.

Honest communication

One positive pandemic legacy is that the trend for frankness has only gathered pace. Candour in extremis showed what can be achieved with a strong cultural bond and that connection has now become the most important consideration for forward-thinking clients in procurement processes.

Whereas briefs may have led on credentials and capabilities previously, now culture takes pride of place and other factors follow. Clients realise that if a strong relationship is established at the outset, results are more likely to follow and, when challenges come along, we can work together to overcome them.

For agencies, this has been a rewarding and empowering paradigm shift and one that has breathed new life into the sector.

True commitment

The onus on nurturing long-term partnerships and avoiding churn pays clients back in spades because it allows value to come through in many different ways. Agencies are developing sector knowledge on a par with in house experts, meaning we make suggestions outside of our brief and contribute to a client’s wider growth and success; our analysis carries a proper grasp of a client’s unique challenges and, therefore, PR strategies are designed with true understanding of their market and audience priorities in mind.

In turn, measurement of impact is based on relevant, rather than generic, criteria and we can assess performance above or below that benchmark with genuine rigour and transparency.

New respect

The respect that flows from this new dynamic emboldens agencies to take a frank approach to communications, whether that be politely disagreeing with a client’s view, or pushing them to commit to a strategy for the right, well-informed reasons.

We and many other agencies have taken this a step further by creating client charters, detailing ways of working, including behavioural and ethical standards, which any client must sign up to before starting work together. A relationship of equals from the outset, with a common cultural approach and respectful but frank communication on both sides can only bode well for long-term success.

Written by Stuart Skinner, group managing director at PR agency The PHA Group

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