Agency pros refer to it as the "bait and switch." The client sits in a room packed with senior executives and founders. They sign the contract with the agency, and the next time they meet, a 22-year-old AE is fielding their questions.
At most large agencies, the higher an employee rises at the management level, the further away from clients he or she gets. Whether it develops accidentally or not, clients have parted with agencies because of this, and it continues to be on their minds when they sit in the pitch room. Clients want to believe that part of what they're paying for is the wisdom and experience of senior-level management.
"At any pitch, inevitably the question comes up: 'Is this the pitch team or is this my account team?' Because the pitch team tends to be more senior," says Mark Hass, Global CEO of Manning Selvage & Lee. "But there's an expectation from many clients that senior staff will be involved in the account."
The bait and switch has gotten more subtle over the years. Rather than disappearing wholesale after the winning pitch, senior managers now often gradually drift away over time. According to Fred Bateman, president of the Bateman Group, clients have been asking agencies to break up into smaller, senior-managed teams for years, but the financial model for such a structure is counterintuitive to most agencies.
"These agencies are either, one, focused on rapid growth in an effort to get acquired, or two, face intense pressure from a parent company to hit certain financial metrics each month," Bateman states in an e-mail.
Still, most agencies acknowledge that it's more than just a bonus to have senior management involved; it's a necessity.
"Shame on any agency that does not have senior management actively involved in a client relationship," says Steve Cody, managing partner of Peppercom, who added that agencies need to build senior involvement into their proposition value.
The necessity for senior management to be involved becomes vital in crisis situations, when clients expect their agency to know precisely how to manage the media and messaging once the crisis is over - a skill that should not be delegated to junior staffers.
There's also benefits to the agency that come with exercising a policy of hands-on senior activity. Jeff Hunt, CEO of GCI Group, says agencies add to their own future by teaching junior staffers the necessities of succeeding when they eventually become senior staffers.
"Number one, it's what the client wants," he says. "And number two, it sets a great example to all of our people, in terms of how we expect them to grow up within the climate of the agency."
The practice can also benefit an agency's bottom line by developing long-term relationships as opposed to the brief, project-oriented wins that can make quarterly results fluctuate. For Hass, senior involvement can sometimes be the difference between winning an account and building a relationship with the client and losing the pitch, considering so many will choose an agency based on the senior management's level of commitment.
"There are some agencies who nurture relationships," Hass says. "I think the agencies that keep clients long-term have kept them because all levels of its staff were somehow involved."
Senior involvement contributes to both client retention and staff retention
A common client complaint is that senior-level staff distance themselves from their account
Clients should ask at the pitch who from the firm will be directly involved in the account