Masterclass Notes: Why questions matter in client/agency relationships
by Johanna McDowell (@jomcdowell) Over the last 15 years, it has become clear to me that ad agencies are failing to ask as many questions as perhaps they should — especially obvious in a pitch process — and is increasingly becoming a factor in the breakdown in the relationship between marketers and their agencies.
Number of factors
Why is this? There are a number of factors:
- The fear of asking a question that might make the person asking look foolish or unprepared
- The concern that the marketer might take offence at a direct line of questions and be evasive or fearful as a result
- The unwillingness of wanting to ask a question that may appear to be impertinent
- The fear of being shouted down by colleagues
- Time and trust: in today’s busy world, there’s often not enough time to ask questions in the day-to-day working life of agencies and clients, plus questions over email are open to misinterpretation and may lead to loss of trust
- Is the account management team, often the ones in the front line with its marketing clients, sufficiently well-equipped to ask the important questions? Are the team members curious and have they been encouraged to be so?
- Agencies are reluctant, during a pitch process, to ask questions in case their questions are shared with their competitors
This list is not exhaustive.
How to change this
So, how can we change this? The most-stimulating part of the agency environment is the curiosity and creativity that can lead to asking great questions and receiving enlightened answers. I believe that agency leaders who encourage the art of questions will achieve better and better results.
With agencies being increasingly involved in the business decision-making processes of marketers (not just in the role of creating ads), this means that marketers will become (and will want to become) more and more reliant on their agencies to help them solve complex marketing communications issues and to simplify solutions.
For example, I’ve learnt that marketers have bought more and more marketing technology (martech) tools to help them solve their marketing issues but that these tools haven’t necessarily been integrated well into the marketer’s environment. A well-informed agency can be very helpful in this area in terms of solving the business and martech issues — if it’s enabled to ask the relevant questions.
In a pitch process, I don’t aggregate agency questions. In fact, I encourage questions at chemistry stage (which is an eliminator stage) and at Q&A sessions — which are individually managed per agency — before the pitch. In this way, I hope that agencies will ask as many questions as they need to in order to obtain clarity in a situation, such as the pitch, where this is often an issue. But, more than that, I also recommend that marketers spend time with their agencies so that an atmosphere of trust and real engagement may be built from the outset. In this way, I believe that marketers and their agencies will gain the most from the relationship and that curiosity will become an integral part of their day-to-day dealings.
Training people to be curious is not difficult (humans are by nature curious) but breeding a culture of curiosity will take time and careful management by both parties — within their own marketing teams and within their own agency teams. If clients are telling me that curiosity is the most-valuable attribute their account lead needs to have, then this is a clear direction for agencies and for future growth. As account management has become an undervalued role in efforts to manage costs by agencies, this could be a disaster in the longer term as it’s a job that requires the greatest degree of curiosity within an agency/marketer environment.
“Is efficiency the enemy of curiosity?” Does the preoccupation with agency profitability and bottom-line management come at the expense of curiosity? Will this, in the long run, undermine and side-line the very skill that could ensure that client success is reached? Are marketers aware that reducing agency fees may often mean a forced cost saving in agency account management, which is the area where, in reality, more money needs to be spent?
More to say
The AAR Group in the UK has done extensive research in this area and I’ve been looking at various studies that show how vital curiosity is to an organisation’s performance [full disclosure: the IAS was founded in South Africa in 2006 in association with the AAR Group]. I believe that this is so relevant and so topical that I’m devising a series of sessions in 2020 for agencies and marketers alike in order to address this issue.
I will have more to say on this in the months to come.
Johanna McDowell (@jomcdowell) is MD of the Independent Agency Search and Selection Company (IAS), which is partnered with the AAR Group in the UK. Johanna is one of the few experts driving this mediation and advisory service in SA and globally. She also runs the IAS Marketers Masterclass, a programme consisting of masterclasses held in Cape Town and in Johannesburg. Twice a year she attends AdForum Worldwide Summits.