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Agency-Client Relationships Fraying in Germany

Tensions will rise, a recent study predicts

January 18, 2017

Relations between advertisers and their advertising and marketing agencies are central to the industry as we know it. But these ties are under strain as digital technology transforms the landscape and the pace of activity rises, according to a Gesamtverband Kommunikationsagenturen GWA report, "Agentur-Kunden-Beziehungen von Morgen" ("Agency-Client Relations of Tomorrow"). Its conclusions were based on a quantitative survey of 462 professionals, a workshop with 16 agency and marketing experts, and 30 interviews with executives in the industry.

Agencies vs. Clients in Germany Who Believe Agency/Client Relationships Are Becoming More Fraught with Conflict and Tension, Oct 2016 (% of respondents)

First the good news: 87% of agencies and 83% of clients polled in October 2016 said they'd had positive relationships with clients or agencies in the previous three to five years. The future seemed less rosy, however. Only 50% of agencies and 60% of clients anticipated any positive developments in their relations—meaning that 50% of agencies and 40% of their clients predicted a deterioration.

One reason is a growing emphasis on cost and efficiency. Eight in 10 agencies and 78% of clients thought their future dealings would be even more focused on these areas.

Expected Changes in Agency/Client Relationships According to Agencies vs. Clients in Germany, Oct 2016 (% of respondents)

To one degree or another, agencies and clients shared many other opinions about the future, too. Over 60% of both groups thought their business exchanges would happen more quickly and be more hectic; over 70% thought their relationships would be both broader and more specific in their details.

As a result, many respondents saw a less comfortable time ahead. Among agencies, 56% anticipated their dealings with clients would become more conflictual and tense; among clients, 44% expected the same.

How to overcome these problems? According to GWA, some answers emerge clearly from agencies' and clients' complaints about one another. Many of these issues have been evident for years, but have more serious consequences in the digital era.

For example, agencies typically said that clients didn't know what they wanted, briefed badly, meddled in the creative process, were indecisive, wanted more for less money, or tended to focus on what they could measure, not what was important. Clients, for their part, felt agencies often had insufficient knowledge of their product and its market context, offered poor creative, lacked good project management skills or didn't listen enough.

Both agencies and clients need to up their game, GWA concluded. Both must clarify and better understand their roles, and provide transparency and accountability—especially with a growing number of third parties (such as ad tech solution providers) entering the frame. Focusing on business results, not communications results, was another priority, GWA suggested. Crucially, it also recommended that agencies seize the opportunity to reconfigure their own roles, and improve their ability to provide strategic insight.

—Karin von Abrams

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