How a crisis could create deeper agency-brand partnerships

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Could a crisis like the one we’re in now provide an opportunity for agencies to create closer ties to the brands they work with?

COVID19 is changing everything in our lives, including our professional relationships.

As Steve Jefferys, Client Service Director at Bristol-based CRM agency, Armadillo, explains, this unique moment in our lives is focusing us on what those relationships should look like…

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Steve Jefferys, Client Service Director at Bristol CRM agency, Armadillo.

Steve Jefferys

It’s a time-honoured saying that agencies seek to work in partnership with their clients as opposed to being just suppliers.

However, the daily intensity of delivering ‘Campaign X’ to reach ‘Quarterly Strategic Pillar Y’ by ‘Deadline Z’ leads to a need to focus priorities on the shorter term, meaning we’re not often close to meeting this ideal.

The recent global crisis has proved that it might take just that – a crisis – to get to the root of what a client-agency business relationship actually means.

The enforced lockdown as a result of Covid-19 has in many ways helped to strip back the client and agency relationship to its very essence: a partnership powered by subject matter specialism counterweighted with a blend of human empathy and emotional intelligence.

In fact, there are three ways we’re witnessing this in action at the moment (at least in the short-term)…

1. We’re seeing partnership at all levels

In pre-Covid-19 times, a typical client-agency relationship can be categorised more as a partnership the higher up the seniority ladder you go; where the bigger questions are being asked and answered.

The more junior interactions – largely focused on delivering ‘Campaign X’ – necessarily have a more transactional focus.

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Being there: Jefferys finds we’re all now focused on helping each other.

The current crisis has given everyone a shake, however. Suddenly, everyone is there for everyone: helping, advising, supporting, commiserating, delivering and being genuinely thankful.

Relationships previously only as smooth as the last campaign deployment now have a newer, longer-term and more deeply connected energy to them: galvanised through shared adversity.

This, in turn, is a great development opportunity for more junior client and agency staff, too.

2. Every interaction is a chance to be human first

It’s so easy to lead with work first, rather than lives first. From constant video calls with untimely background appearances from children to the newest form of competitor sports – homeschooling – everyone’s on a heightened state of alert.

With this in mind, treating each interaction with a lightness of touch has never been more important. Producing a laugh; getting to a feeling of solidarity; or sharing a look forward to happier times can shift frames of mind and support good mental health on both sides; turning what might have been a tricky, stressful day on its head.

The prosaic ‘how are you?’ agency missive so typical at the start of client calls now has a much more poignant, heartfelt tone to it. And people see the benefit of it. We should remember that when this has passed.

3. Tackling the bigger problems now

Rather than the normal ‘we’ll get onto that in the future’, the situation has enabled agencies to help clients think about tackling that bigger problem right now.

This is a positive step. It helps clients and agencies turbo-charge unlocking those more transformative problems whose solutions will pay dividends in the long-run.

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Choices: Agencies have the chance to help clients open the door to solutions that will pay dividends.

This could be developing that new proposition, holding that long put-off budget conversation now or re-considering the whole channel strategy.

And it’s not just that these bigger problems are being tackled now. They’re being fast-tracked to solution quicker as client focus sharpens and we have the undivided attention of key decision-makers; keen both to future-proof their business and deliver discernible short-term output.

So what about when this is all over? It’s unrealistic to think we’ve fashioned a new utopia. Decades of office evolution and the last 20 years of digital acceleration won’t be undone following six crazy weeks.

However, the experience will have helped smooth the way for two distinctive, positive shifts.

Clients will reappraise the value their agency brings

Being there in the dark times – right alongside their clients – will give positive reinforcement to the outside perspective and rigour a good agency specialist brings to the table.

So rather than be a dispensable commodity that’s the first expense to go, the agency could be seen as the vanguard of changing things up (for the better).

Agencies will be bolder in pitching their value to clients

The forced practice of stripping spend and priorities back to the essentials has highlighted where agency resources are best deployed. Agencies should see this as a positive.

So when the claxon call of 2021 budget setting comes around, agencies should feel emboldened and empowered to pitch their expertise at solving those problems that really need solving (and will pay long-term dividends).

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