Jun 25 2024
Clare McKinley

Three Ways Agency Leaders Can Build Trust with Their Clients


The question of how to of build and maintain trust between agencies and their clients has been a topic of discussion for decades. Yet the strained alliance between agencies and brands seems to have grown even more tenuous of late, with nearly half of marketers saying their agency’s client relationships are more strained today than they were two years ago.

Considering the numerous challenges facing agencies today—from rising rates from media partners, reduced client budgets, and subsequently shrinking margins, to signal loss, to the talent crisis, to an increasingly fragmented media landscape—it’s not all that surprising to see these strains impacting relationships with clients.

“An agency CEO summed up the gravity of the situation for me recently,” says Michael Olson, EVP of Client Development at Basis Technologies. “He said, ‘The business of agencies right now is staying in business.’”

In the face of these myriad factors contributing to the strained relations between agencies and their clients, agency leaders should adopt practices to build trust with their clients—a worthy priority, given the impact trust has on the quality of agency/client relationships and on generating new business, with more than three-quarters of marketers finding their agencies through word of mouth.

To foster more trusting, fruitful, and longstanding partnerships with their clients, agencies must invest in developing and nurturing their client relationships, providing transparency whenever possible, and working to reduce siloes amongst their team.

Nurture Client Relationships

In 2023, a whopping 55% of brands said that they were likely to end their relationship with their primary marketing agency in the next six months. In this fraught and competitive landscape, agencies must earn their clients’ trust by finding ways to invest in those relationships beyond the scope of work itself.

“Clients need their agency partners to deeply care about their businesses and fully understand how they operate,” says Kelly Boyle, Group VP of Client Strategy and Insights at Basis Technologies. To do so, agencies should allocate time for staying up to date on what’s happening with their clients’ businesses—for instance, reading their earnings reports and press releases—as well as keeping tabs on their clients’ competitors, so they can bring a heightened level of fluency and insight to their interactions. “Even something as small as knowing and using your client’s internal lingo can serve as a meaningful signal that you understand and are invested in their business,” says Boyle. 

Like any relationship, communication is key: When asked in a 2023 survey how agencies can become better partners, the most common answer from brands was “communicate effectively.” To improve communication, agencies leaders might opt to set up regular, high-level leadership check-ins with their clients to touch base on the overall partnership. This gives leaders a chance to ask their clients how the partnership is faring from their point of view and whether the agency is meeting the clients’ needs, allowing them to better address any misalignments or areas of growth. This kind of regular, open communication creates an opportunity for clients to share high-level feedback, and it gives the agency the chance to respond and adjust accordingly—before the client opts to end the partnership. It also creates a prime opportunity to realign on clients’ needs and goals. “When there’s a breakdown in communication on desired outcomes and needs between an agency and their client,” says Olson, “that relationship is likely going to break.”

Overall, a little goes a long way in terms of nurturing client relationships. By finding small ways to go the extra mile in terms of understanding their clients’ businesses and fostering intentional communication, agencies can make significant headway towards building long-lasting trust with their clients.

Offer Transparency

The many challenges facing agencies today have resulted in reduced transparency, which can weigh down agency-client relationships. A lack of fee transparency, for example, is a rising point of contention that (while often viewed as “necessary” by agencies facing intense financial pressures and shrinking profit margins) can erode trust with clients.

Boyle points to overselling and underbidding as another common practice by agencies looking to win new business. Unfortunately, overselling when trying to lock in new business leads to a host of other issues that work to undermine client satisfaction, as agency workers must try to deliver on what was promised at a reduced rate, which can lead to understaffed accounts and employee burnout. This is likely a contributing factor for brand marketers who rank “dissatisfaction with value” as the number one reason they end agency relationships. Overselling can also create a breakdown in trust, as clients feel that agencies weren’t transparent about their capacity during the pitching process.

While financial pressures may drive agencies to be less transparent than their clients would prefer, agency leaders must find ways to meet brands’ expectations. For example, to reduce the negative impacts of overselling, agency leaders may look to foster more alignment between their teams who pitch clients and those who eventually serve those clients, which can ensure that pitches are as clear, honest, and genuine as possible.

Being transparent about your team’s limits is another way to set realistic expectations and develop stronger relationships. While agency leaders might fear that saying “no” to a request undermines their value, being honest about limits can actually serve to build trust. “Agencies want to say yes all the time to please their clients,” says Olson. “But when an agency says yes to something and then fails, that’s another strike against them for the client. My recommendation is to own what you do well, and don’t shy away from saying no to things that your team can’t deliver on.”

By demonstrating that they understand their clients’ need for transparency and that they are taking measures to meet that need, agency leaders can get in front of this common point of contention and foster more trusting partnerships.

Reduce Data Siloes

Media complexity and fragmentation in the marketing landscape have led to agencies working with an increasing number of siloed data sets. More than half of agency workers’ tech stacks consist of six or more tools, which is likely why about 20% of agency leaders plan to increase their investment in data management tools within the next year.

When data sources are siloed, agencies lack a single source of truth—a disconnection which can lead to clients hearing different things from different people in the same agency, which serves to undermine trust. Data siloes also reduce data accuracy and can result in faulty data analysis.

Even more, data siloes bog agencies down with manual data consolidation, standardization, and verification tasks, which limit their speed and agility. As such, the lack of data consolidation at agencies is a contributing factor to why only 31% of marketers on the client side are satisfied with the speed and agility their agency partners bring to the table, despite 92% of those same marketers feeling that speed and agility are important. “Once everyone from account services to billing to media operations can operate off a clean data set, everything moves incredibly fast,” says Olson.

Investing in systems and tools that automate data consolidation has a host of benefits that strengthen agency-client relationships, even beyond building trust and increasing speed and agility. For example, the ability to access a single source of truth via unified data sets supports better marketing personalization for consumers and better satisfaction for agency employees, as it reduces the laborious manual data consolidation in which many agency workers get bogged down. It also gives agency workers more time to focus on strategic and creative tasks, which improves the quality of their work (and which tend to be far more satisfying than hunkering down with some spreadsheets.) All in all, because of the many ways it allows agencies to better serve their clients, reducing data siloes is one of the most impactful actions agency leaders can take to strengthen their client relationships.

Wrapping Up

At their core, long-lasting and fulfilling agency-client relationships are built on a solid foundation of trust. As agency leaders navigate the many challenges facing their businesses today, focusing on improving client trust via nurturing client relationships, offering transparency, and reducing data siloes will be critical for not only staying in business, but gaining a competitive advantage.

Want to find out how agency leaders across the US feel about the challenges and opportunities that are shaping their futures? Check out our 2024 Advertising Agency Report to get all the top takeaways from our survey of agency professionals.

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