Client Heads endure the daily combat of client-agency relationships. They get no glory for their efforts or sacrifices. They suffer the consequences of scope of work increases, fee reductions, inadequate resources and relationship threats. They hold the line and try to keep things from getting worse. They're on their own. This is not right -- agency transformations depend on Client Head successes in battle. Client Heads are receiving inadequate support from their leaders.
Client Heads have been fighting a losing war since the advent of labor-based fees and the rise of client procurement departments. Agency fees have been under constant attack, and clients have won every fee battle for the past two decades. Every three or four years, agencies are put up for review by clients, and relationships are terminated. Agencies then seek and win new clients, most often at lower fees, and the war-losing cycle continues.
The addition of digital and social briefs into agency scopes of work has made the Client Head's job even worse. The massive increase in digital and social work is like an enemy's use of cluster bombs against friendly troops -- they're small and deadly. Agency two-person creative teams have seen their yearly outputs increase from 25 briefs per year to over 500 per year during the past decade. (This calculation counts Facebook unique posts, Instagram ads, programmatic deliverables, banner ads, online print / video insertions, e-mail marketing and other small deliverables.) Client Heads spend much of their time ensuring that the huge number of briefs get done on time rather than ensuring that the creative work is strategic and on brief.
And while this is happening, clients invest in their own internal agency operations, taking creative work away from agencies but reducing agency fees at an even faster rate.
Despite the growth of digital and social briefs, client topline growth remains stagnant. Twenty top advertisers in the U.S. saw their aggregate sales decline by 4% between 2009 and 2019, before COVID-19 made this even worse in 2020.
This unhappy situation raises some important questions about the support being given to Client Heads:
Sadly, there is little evidence that new strategies are being developed or that Client Heads are trained and mobilized for the challenges they face.
Senior executives often talk about "improved creativity"as the solution for agency problems, but this is wishful thinking. Improved creativity is certainly an appropriate goal, but past creative improvements have not delivered improved performance. What kind of creative improvements are we talking about? How are they going to be implemented to help clients grow and pay better fees? How will improved creativity halt the inflation of scopes of work and the stagnation of agency salaries?
"Improved creativity" is certainly more exciting to talk about than "improved business practices," but this should not mislead senior agency executives. Agencies need to get smarter about their business practices. Here's what's needed:
Client Heads have been the front-line troops in relationship and business battles with clients. There have been many instances of individual heroism within the ranks of the troops, but the war they've been fighting has been a losing one. It's now time for agency senior leaders to step up efforts to arm Client Heads -- and help them win the battles that they face daily.
Photo credit: Frank Cotham, The New Yorker, The Cartoon Bank. With permission.
Click the social buttons to share this story with colleagues and friends.
The opinions expressed here are the author's views and do not necessarily represent the views of MediaVillage.com/MyersBizNet.