Ghosted, paid late, misrepresented: the client/agency relationship is at its lowest ebb

There isn’t an agency out there that hasn’t had a rough ride with a client at some point, but post-pandemic (if one can even call this 'post') the tide seems to have turned toward an even tougher stance with agencies.

Some clients are trying to turn agencies into contestants in the Hunger Games, says Samantha Losey
Some clients are trying to turn agencies into contestants in the Hunger Games, says Samantha Losey

I don’t think I have ever seen lower budgets and higher expectations, so much scope-creep, so much agency-versus-agency sparring at the client’s behest; it is getting closer to the Hunger Games every day.

The old adage of ‘happy wife, happy life’ has always been the stalwart of agency existence. You do whatever it takes to get results, meet expectations and guarantee a good job for the client.

But, from my perspective, there is a hell of a lot more ‘bad cop/bad cop’ going on. Maybe it is a sign of the times, but the position of the agency – certainly PR/communications agency – has shifted, and I am not sure the shift is for the better.

This is by no means an admonishment of clients as a whole; we have all worked with clients who have wonderful teams, work in genuine partnership and lean in to the mutually beneficial role that an agency can have.

But I am not afraid to say that isn’t always the case. Where once it felt like agencies had respect and co-council on their side, now it feels like that status has radically altered and, as such, treatment – in the broadest sense – has worsened.

The bane of PR

Why is this? When did we become the breed of species to get ghosted? Perhaps when the media agencies were sucking the life out of clients of all sizes while doing very little for their extortionate rates? Have we been tarred with a bad brush and now we are paying the price? Certainly our forebears didn’t help us out when it came to integrity, intelligence or insight.

Indeed, whoever thought that the best approach to creative, insightful, channel-agnostic work and a healthy agency relationship was tagging everything on to media buying really didn’t look to the future of agency in so doing. Clients are tired of big spend and no results, and we are taking a lot of heat for it.

A very senior colleague, in-house at a large pharmaceutical brand, recently told me of a media agency pitching the same – rejected – idea three times across as many months. We would be pilloried for such behaviour, told we are not innovating or bringing new things to the table, warned that there are more where we came from and to buck-up our ideas. Such is the misappropriated power of spend where the seller is dictating to the buyer and everyone has just watched it happen.

‘Don’t drink the Kool-Aid’

I want to scream at clients: ‘No, that’s a stupid way to use your budget, don’t drink the Kool-Aid.’ Your audience has moved on, one-way conversations and passive reception are dead, modern communication is about conversation, dialogue, interaction, engagement – fluid communication with cultural relevance and genuine insight.

No doubt times are leaner than ever, client teams are smaller than ever and budgets have shrunk, while the power and responsibility of brand has shifted and thus, as a by-product, clients are more stretched than ever.

But it feels like we are just now dealing with the behaviour hangover that has resulted from years of inflated budgets going to the wrong places and no results materialising; of creativity being an afterthought, not the main attraction; of paid being the belle of the haunted ball that no one realised was haunted.

Thus, something must change. We cannot continue to pay the piper on a song we didn’t write. We have to be bolder, braver and unafraid to push back as a collective discipline – even though the cost might seem risky – or else our treatment, respect and collaborative position can only worsen.

Samantha Losey is managing director of Unity


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