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What clients expect from their ad agencies

by | Oct 19, 2022

Capitol Communicator ad agencies neglect their peopleBy Ron Owens

Seeing yourself as others see you is vital to any individual trying to make his or her way in this rough-and-tumble, competitive world.  By all indications, advertising agencies are not exempt from this law of survival either. In recognition of the lack of respect and contribution of our industry to the economy, I “planted the seed” for the establishment of AdWkDC and led by my good friend and passionate advertising professional, Cary Hatch, assisted by her dedicated staff and local ad professionals, brought that idea to fruition…for which I am thankful and eternally grateful. This article represents my thoughts relative to client expectations from their advertising agencies.

Advertising agencies try to be many things, often losing a sense of priority for what is essential. What is considered most important can be arguable in the helter-skelter environment of day-to-day operations and, as a consequence, it is possible to lose your way or take your eye off the prize.

Many years ago, the Lou Harris organization conducted a poll of over 600 client marketing executives representing the nation’s leading advertisers. Part of that study clearly established the attributes that clients look for in selecting an agency. The findings of that broad survey were clearly definitive. Since that time, what clients look for has not changed much and time has brought few surprises. Advertisers rate most important those services that they depend on an advertising agency to provide exclusively. Foremost on the client’s rating scale – creative work that sells.

Advertisers / clients rate the following five criteria as their most important:

  1.   Creative Work that Sells
  2.   Responsive Account Group
  3.   Careful with Client’s Money
  4. Understands the Client’s Business
  5. Creative Flair

While the ranking of these criteria has changed little over in years, the attribute of “careful with a client’s money” has risen dramatically. Further, while the Harris study was confined to the US, it is believed that advertisers the world over would generally agree with these rankings.

If an agency scores very high on these top five criteria, it probably wins a lot of new business solicitations / competitions and has clients who are very satisfied. If one were starting an agency, the following criteria would be essential to survival:

 Creative Work That Sells.

Creative work that sells is the essence of our business. Hundreds of books have been written on how to achieve this and people have earned a living traveling the world lecturing on the subject. There are no magical answers. There are, however, some factors are always present in effective advertising.

First and without exception, it must be based on the product user’s need or self-image.  Consumers want to know what’s in it for them. If copy, storyboards or layouts don’t clearly address this concern, then it’s better to start over.

Second, effective advertising always presents a fresh idea or delivers the familiar in a new way. It is this new message or unique method of conveying it that registers with consumers.

Third, creative work that sells is innovative, highly memorable and unexpected, including name recognition of the product. How many of us have heard someone describe a commercial in detail only to discover that we can’t recall the product being advertised. This represents more than just a missed opportunity. It’s a waste of the client’s money.

Responsiveness of the Account Group

As a seasoned marketing and advertising veteran, I know why “Responsiveness of the Account Group” ranks so high. Clients look to account people as their representatives, their liaison within the agency. They look to account people for rationality, as well as for a business-like approach to problem-solving.

How do you get responsive account people? You hire people who could be successful several different career fields, but have chosen advertising and the agency business.  They relish the combination of business and the arts, living constantly with the unexpected, dealing with surprises and sudden change. They like to build a team, an image, a brand, a business. Most importantly, they like the people in the agency business.

These people must be aggressive and highly motivated. If they are, they will quickly understand that helping clients meet their goals is the soundest way to build a career.

Good account people are proactive. They constantly seek out new ideas for all aspects of the marketing mix.  Help them be responsive and reward them frequently. Occasionally, this means a raise, a promotion, or a better office. But on a smaller, more frequent scale, reward them with a compliment before their peers, a short, handwritten note or an assignment of particular sensitivity.

Careful with Client’s Money.

 An agency must regard a client’s money as if it were its own. The agency must assume all prices – production, media, freelance, etc. – are negotiable. In commercial production, for example, it is necessary almost always to engage in competitive bidding.

Keep in mind that a director’s time is a perishable commodity. Perhaps the creative people want to use Director X, but they must be convinced to secure two additional bids as well. This helps keep Director X’s price competitive and broadens the creatives’ knowledge and contacts among directors.

In dealing with a client’s money, think long term. Nothing destroys an agency’s marketing credibility faster than constant recommendations to spend more in both media and production. Yes, if more should be spent, the client should be told, but to build a long-term partnership, a client must also be shown how to cut costs. I’ve told clients several times to reduce or even stop spending behind specific brands because it was the right thing to do – even though it reduced the agency’s income for the short-term.  Nevertheless, in every case, the long-term benefits of this action were exceptional for all concerned.

Lastly, an agency must implement sound accounting systems. Without question, the most thankless jobs and the loneliest people in an agency are in the financial or billing department. Good financial / billing people are worth their weight in gold.

 Really Understand a Client’s Business

The better an agency understands a client’s business, the more helpful it becomes, and the less time the client needs to waste on education and off-target recommendations.  How does one learn to understand the client’s business? Listening. Studying. Getting out into the field.

At LMO Advertising, we have a philosophy, an operating style that we ardently pursue. It’s called “Outcome Orientation.” It’s about partnership and learning all aspects of our client’s business in depth. What is the origin of the product/service? How is it produced, distributed, promoted? How does the retailer feel about it? What do consumers / primary users think of it? What are the features, benefits, incentives of the product / service? How is the product / service branded & positioned in the marketplace? The key is to be curious, to keep asking why.

“Outcome Orientation” also means working with the client’s product / service and talking to the customer. It is essential to moderate focus groups and talk with many consumers about a client’s products. Really understanding the client’s business leads to better marketing and better advertising.

Creative Flair

Creative flair tells the message with humor, drama, and emotion. It rewards the viewer for watching, the listener for listening, and the reader for reading.

While agency creative people might rate this as the most important quality in selecting a place to work, less than half the advertisers in the Harris Survey think it is “absolutely essential.” There is a reason for this difference. Clients see advertising as an aid in selling their products or services, but what agencies sell is primarily their advertising.  Agencies too often forget that advertising is a means to an end, and instead, see their creative work as the end, in and of itself.

Still, there is a real need for creative flair. It is the only way to break through the competitive clutter.  The average American is exposed to or bombarded by over 3,000 advertising messages a day. Today, with remote control TV and the ability to watch on a delayed basis via “on demand,” creative flair protects against being zapped by the viewer product, it’s not creative work that sells.

The top five criteria are essential for the survival of an advertising agency. But the Harris Survey goes on to list seven other factors. Success on a major scale depends on them. Further, they are part of the arsenal of every, well-regarded agency.

  1.   Media Planning
  2.   Media Buying
  3.   Involvement by Top Management
  4.   Research & Strategic Development
  5. Help in Marketing Plans
  6. Help with New Products
  7. Provide a Full-Range of Products

Why don’t advertisers rate media planning higher in the agency criteria? Many clients don’t understand the creative process. So, they depend on their agencies. Media planning, however, is seen as a logical business process, which they believe is easier to understand.  In fact, some major advertisers have an in-house media staff that works closely with their agencies.

The Media Planning process has three key stages: marketing review, planning, and analysis. The marketing review requires a full situation, a clear identification of the target audience, examining specific objectives and strategy. As new creative is being developed, media people should be well-aware of each step of the way, so they could recommend the best use of the consumer media environment to maximize creative impact. Knowledge of social media, when and how to use it, is also of paramount importance.

The plan comes together in the second stage. Media objectives are clearly identified and strategies are devised. The new plan is measured against alternatives, the established budget, and marketplace cost estimates.

Finally, it should be mandatory to analyze the plan after it has run. Did the advertiser get everything he or she paid for? This represents an excellent opportunity for smart agencies to demonstrate their careful management of the client’s budget.

Media Buying

An advertiser wants his or her agency to buy at the lowest price, but a good agency does much more. For the most part, all prices are negotiable. If an agency can’t bid the price down any further, then it should bargain for a special position, a performance guarantee, added merchandising for the client’s sales force, or a variety of other options.

It is imperative for an agency to always be “in the market,” to know exactly what is going on at any given time. The agency must know all of the social marketing venues and when and how to utilize those tools effectively and efficiently. The television and radio sales people / representatives know they are selling a perishable commodity, so smart agencies are also willing to wait. Some extraordinary deals are made on Friday afternoons.

Top Management Involvement

Not many years ago, this would not have been a major concern. Two developments, however, have recently made it much more important.

First, the absolute costs of advertising programs and the speed of competitive response have raised the cost of failure significantly, so much so that clients’ CEO’s and COO’s now regularly participate in advertising decisions formerly left to people lower in the organization.

Second, as many agencies have become publicly owned or have been acquired by holding companies, their senior executives now have to spend huge amounts of time on internal organization structures or financial details. This increased demand takes them away from their clients.

Clients want top agency management involved for three reasons. They want to ensure that their advertising needs are getting maximum agency attention and resources. They want the best possible thinking on their business and they reason that must come from the top.  Finally, company executives want to deal with other executives. This last, largely emotional issue, should not be underestimated. If a client’s president is spending several million dollars through an agency, he or she wants meaningful conversations about the business with the agency’s senior people regularly or the agency’s tenure will not be for very long.

The big privately-owned independent agencies often sell this fact in new business competitions against public agencies like, McCann, JWT, & BBDO. Private agencies’ senior management has more time to spend with their clients.

The remaining four qualities that clients want from their agencies are really conditions of the preceding eight. Specifically, if your clients rate you highly on the first eight, the next four should be easy.

Research and Strategic Development

 If an agency truly understands a client’s business, they are probably hip deep in research.  Research provides a logical rationale for strategic direction. Further, it is often the source of some very strong creative ideas. Most large agencies follow a procedure for developing research information into creative ideas.

A procedural approach is almost always very helpful. However, one must constantly be on guard to ensure that procedures help rather than hinder the creative process.

Help in Strategic Marketing Plans

If an agency really understands the client’s business, if the account people are proactive, and if they think long term, then the client will actively solicit the agency’s help in this area. Also, strong agency contributions to strategic marketing have often carried agencies through creative dry spells.

Help with New Products

Clients generally want help from their agencies in new product development because when the agency has succeeded at accomplishing everything already covered, they are uniquely qualified to help. As with new marketing plans, if an agency understands the client’s business, if it is proactive and thinks long term, it will also want to be deeply involved with new products.

Provide a Full-Range of Services

In addition to delivering the regular agency services of creative, media, research, and marketing, clients may also want public relations, direct marketing, events sponsorship, corporate communications, and social media.

A wide range of services from the agency can be important to a client because it provides more centralized control of all elements in the communications mix or “one stop shopping.” It is also more efficient for clients since it means fewer meetings, phone calls, briefing sessions, and more cost-efficiency.


For an agency to be successful from a client’s point of view, it must deliver the top five attributes:  Advertising that sells, has responsive account people, agency exercises care with the client’s money, and executing with creative flair are key factors in both retaining current business and in gaining new business. However, to become a long-term leader among agencies, all twelve attributes must be executed, practiced and delivered at all times. Consistency is the name of the game.

In closing, I look forward to seeing you at this year’s celebration of Advertising Week commencing November 3, 2022.

Ron Owens is President, Ron Owens & Associates, a market consultancy specializing in market development, branding, diversity & DEI. Ron served as Director of Worldwide Advertising & PR, Pitney Bowes, a Fortune 500 Company, followed by working as VP, TMP Worldwide; VP, Bozell Worldwide; and Co-Founder / Principal, LMO Advertising. Ron also served as President, Ad Club of Metropolitan Washington DC; Governor, 4A’s Region III; Lt Gov, AAF Region II; Committee Chair, ANA and is currently as Vice Chair, Better Business Bureau. Ron also serves as a guest lecturer at many of the region’s colleges & universities and can be reached via Ronowens221@yahoo.com

Pexels photo by fauxels

About the Author

Capitol Communicator and sponsors host various guest postings on relevant topics of interest to the advertising, marketing, public relations and media professional community that Capitol Communicator serves.


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