Media agencies and owners: having better relationships

Agencies... show respect by ditching 'spray and pray'

Ridiculously optimistic deadlines, a failure to understand each other’s roles, a complete lack of trust — there are many pain points which can cause friction in the relationship between clients, their media agencies and media owners. Too often, the result is that, just when all parties need to be communicating more effectively than ever, everyone feels like throwing up their hands in frustration.

Complaining is easy, knowing what to do to make things better is not. Which is what the biannual Digital Media Owners Survey, done by the IPA and sponsored by True & North, is intended to explore by finding out which media owners are delivering the highest levels of service — and how they’re doing it.

With the Autumn 2023 report just published, I’m happy to report that things have improved in the ten years since this research was first carried out, and that a decade of conversations with the best performers — including Mail Metro Media, which topped the most recent survey — have given us some insights into how the circle of frustration can be broken. But we can do better, which is why I’m outlining three of the most frequently cited issues and some actionable solutions.

Get ahead of the brief

Let’s go back to that issue of time, as it’s what is mentioned the most. You know the story: the client sends a last minute brief to their agency. As time is of the essence, the agency feels the best way to proceed is to pass it quickly, instead of taking time to scrutinise it. The media owner operates with the belief that it’s better to offer an average solution than nothing at all, and recycles some old ideas, leaving the client underwhelmed. In fact the latest Digital Media Owners Survey shows just 4 out of 23 media owners had improved their rating in regard to the quality of response to briefs.

It’s a frustrating situation all around. At the same time, short deadlines are the reality of marketing in 2023, so instead of getting angry, the answer lies in getting proactive.

Agencies and media owners shouldn’t see a brief as the sole catalyst for engagement. Instead, get ahead of the brief by engaging with each other. For media owners, this means understanding client objectives; for agencies, it’s learning without the pressure of instant decision-making. The knowledge and understanding will ensure that everyone is better prepared when that urgent brief arrives — and having interactions which aren’t purely focused on a brief can actually end up presenting amazing opportunities that clients aren’t even aware of.

Mutual respect

Agencies and media owners don’t always value what the other brings to the table. Where relationships are not strong, agencies often treat media owners as outsourced labour to generate ideas for clients. On the flip side are media owners which see agencies merely as the gatekeeper to the people that really matter — the client.

Let’s go back to that last minute client brief which, by the way, is also quite vague. What would happen if, instead of hoping the media owner will come up with a solution, the agency and media owner collaborate? Critique the brief, get to the crux of it together. Two heads are better than one, after all.

Us versus them, or in it together?

These frustrations make it easy for everyone involved to forget that they’re all part of the same ecosystem. Agencies blame media owners if campaigns perform poorly; media agencies are suspicious of how agencies represent them to clients and start trying to deal with them directly. Instead of working together to get the best result for clients, agencies and owners end up competing for their attention. The client is caught in the middle and thoroughly unimpressed with either side.

This sense of mistrust benefits no one. So how can faith be rebuilt? Well, for one thing, media agencies could show more respect by ditching the practice of ‘spray and pray’, i.e. sending briefs to multiple media owners without any context, in the hope of striking gold. And on the media owner side, trustworthiness can be proven by turning down briefs that are obviously not appropriate. Deeper relationships mean engaging with each other when it makes sense, when it’s meaningful and adds value for the clients, without whom the whole ecosystem collapses.

Yes, it requires some effort to deal with these problems, but it’s an effort which has rewards. Some are simple, like finishing a call with that energising feeling that everyone’s on the same page and you’re doing good work. Others have a big impact — a client reporting they’ve hit their moon target for example, and asking to talk about strategies for a major launch they’re planning next quarter.

Even in these difficult times, the advantages of genuine collaboration for brands, media owners and agencies can not be underestimated.

Featured image: Christina Morillo / Pexels

David Clayton, Founder and Managing Director, True & North

David began his career leading commercial teams at The Guardian, designing products and selling partnerships to the likes of Google, IDEO, Vodafone and the United Nations. In 2011, David founded True & North with one question in mind: “How can we give busy people the tools to master their client relationships?” This journey has taken David and True & North all over the globe

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