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Revealing The Naked Truth Behind the Agency-Client Relationship

For an industry that says trust is paramount, why are agencies and clients so often at a he-said, she-said impasse? This study looks for answers.

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The process of making good advertising is a complex one that requires equal parts business acumen, applied creativity, risk-taking, and trust. Of the client-agency relationship, all involved believe that trust is the strongest of these ties that bind. In fact, 98% of both clients and agencies believe that a trust-based union leads to better work.

Yet, when it comes to the inner workings of the relationship, there’s a serious disconnect between what one side believes and the other’s perception. Where 88% of clients claim to speak their mind freely, only 36% of agency partners agree. Where 90% of agencies say they truly understand their clients’ business, only 65% of other-halves agree. It’s a classic he-said, she-said situation that reveals the client-agency relationship is a pretty dysfunctional one.

These findings are the result of a study into the relationship between brands and their creative partners from agency RPA and USA Today. Dubbed The Naked Truth, the study involving about 150 senior-level agency and brand marketing leaders was initiated by RPA as a way to stimulate dialogue on the topic, and was presented recently at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.

Tim Leake, SVP growth and innovation at RPA, says he first noticed the significance of the issue while outside of the client-agency dynamic. "Metaphorically, the first time I saw a client naked was when I pivoted from being a creative to working with Hyper Island, a consulting agency. Clients said things to me they never said when I was working agency side. Over lunch, a client once said to me, ‘Honestly, I simply don’t trust any of my agencies to actually solve my marketing problems.’ That got me wondering, what else aren’t they saying out loud."

Tasked with applying creativity to ensure the future success of his agency, Leake decided to focus on improving relationships because, as he says, "the better the relationships, the better the work."

Through surveying agency and marketing leaders, Leake came up with four truths affecting trust and a four-point plan for increasing trust.

In short, those truths are:

1. Considering we’re communication companies, we suck at communication

"We’re good at communicating at a mass scale, but terrible at communicating internally," says Leake. "Communication breakdown happens at every step."

2. We need to apply some creativity to what we mean by creativity

"What does creativity mean? Two-thirds of agencies and clients agree we don’t have a shared definition of creativity. In the ad world, what we really mean by creativity is making ads but it has to be bigger—we have to figure out how we work for the future. We need to figure out what creativity looks like in each relationship because each situation is judged by different standards."

3. Risk is risky

"We had lots of agency people talk about risk. 76% of agency execs say clients don’t take enough risk. But when we present something we have to remember we, as agencies, don’t share the risk level as much as they do," Leake says. "But we have to determine what’s ‘different’ and ‘risky’—those are two distinct things. Any risks that are taken have to be aligned with client goals."

4. We’re better at the art of ads than the art of business

"Creatives are trained in the craft. They come from portfolio schools. We clearly think we’re better at this than our clients perceive us to be, but at the same time clients don’t understand how passionate agencies are at helping build and transform business," says Leake. "Too often it feels like we’re trying to sell ideas and clients agreed that agencies seem more interested in selling their work. Our incentives are not aligned and this will be a problem until we fix it. We need a business case for craft. We know from experience and in our gut it matters, but we need to develop the business case stronger, not based on what we feel.

To help rectify the situation, Leake suggest four courses of action: focus on interpersonal communication; work with clients to better understand and define creativity; recognize the distinction between "different" and "risky;" and practice the art of business as much as the art of advertising.

For more insights on this study, and many candid quotes from both sides of the relationship, check this infographic below, or www.getnakedatcannes.com.

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