Why creative agencies should be all ears

As part of our proven process for defining a creative agency value proposition, (answering the question ‘why would your ideal client choose you over the competition?) we get insight from their clients.

So every year, across a range of different creative agencies, we speak to at least 60 to 80 clients.

It never fails to be fascinating and enlightening.

We have a number of objectives when we speak to these clients.

There are a few obvious hygiene questions to do with quality of service, strengths and weaknesses.

More importantly, we are trying to get an idea of how the client thinks the agency adds value and what the client is really buying when they buy from that agency. Very often this perspective is very different from what the creative agency thinks the client values and why they are chosen over the competition.

But above all, we are trying to get to the holy grail of account management and uncover unmet needs: what are the pains the client is experiencing and the gains they need? What keeps them up at night? What are the challenges facing their organisation, or the challenges facing them in their roles? Plus a couple of other key question areas which you will understand if I don’t include here.

The research is written up verbatim, not as bullet point, notes or on a quantitative scale: what we are looking for here is the potential for what Treacy and Wiersma call (The Discipline of Market Leaders: Choose Your Customers, Narrow Your Focus, Dominate Your Market) ‘customer intimacy’ and it is best if it comes straight from the horse’s mouth.

The reaction of creative agencies to their research varies. One this year described it as ‘a revelation’ another as ‘an eye-opener’ and another as: ‘at once the scariest and most fascinating document I have ever read’.

This deep dive isn’t something that you can repeat too often with the same clients.But the fact that when we do it is such a revelation speaks to a larger problem within the creative services sector and especially of the video, branded content, live event and communication agencies that we tend to work with.

The majority of these creative agencies do not engage with their clients unless they are actively working on a job for that client and are in ‘delivery’ mode.

This is crazy.

Most creative agencies not on a retainer rely on a consistent 70% – 80% of repeat business every year. Those that don’t, and where the turnover of clients is greater, tend to have less predictable and less profitable businesses and suffer accordingly. And, of course, following the 80 /20 rule then the profitability of the agency tends to rest in even fewer of those clients.

If video, branded content, live event and communication agencies put the same effort, time, creativity, resource and sheer blood, sweat and tears into understanding and supporting existing clients as they do in trying to win new business they could find their businesses transformed. Not just because their relationship and service with their existing clients would be so much deeper and more relevant, not just because the insight is likely to lead to co-created solutions which therefore means it is harder for the agency to be replaced or replicated by a competitor; but also because the insight and experience gained with existing clients can invariably create a highly attractive and more competitive offer to prospects with similar needs, wants and outcomes. ‘Customer intimacy’ with your clients is a win-win for your creative business.

One last thing. Very many of the clients we speak to every year tell us that they want to hear more – and more often – from their creative agencies. Clients need to keep ahead, they need to be seen as innovators and solution providers; they rely upon their creative agencies to keep abreast of trends, to understand what is new or good practice and how or whether an innovation in thought, practice or technology can be applied to them and their business. It is in the best interest of the creative agency to make the running in this – if you do more to listen to your clients, act on their needs and provide insight – you will find your business the better for it. Cheers, big ears.