The relationship between charities and agencies is broken. What went wrong and how can it be fixed?
Raw London’s CEO & founder, Ryan Wilkins, ran a series of interviews with charity leaders across content, media, digital, individual giving, brand and marketing functions. This was followed by a session at IFC 2019 on how the client/agency dynamic is long overdue a reboot.
Let’s get back to basics: the role of an agency is to provide specialist services alongside a wealth of experience, insights and know-how to a client’s business. When procured effectively and managed well, an agency can add significant value at a factor many times its cost.
But not all agencies and agency relationships are created equal. From my conversations with colleagues in both ad-land and the charity sector, I confirmed my suspicions that, more often than not, one or both parties aren’t having a great time and the cracks have been forming for some time now.
Agency-side, complaints usually centre around the pitch – how and why projects are briefed out, how the process is managed and how decisions are made. Client-side, my interviewees spoke often of their unhappiness at the way a new agency had performed, how they were being treated, the value being provided, or how an existing agency has become complacent.
To a neutral observer, things appear a bit bleak. Are agencies becoming irrelevant?
Looking at the fundamentals, I’d suggest not – trading conditions are turbulent and charities are having to fight increasingly hard to achieve cut-through, instil trust and attract and retain donors. These circumstances should generate high demand for specialist knowledge and support from external agencies. This correlates with what interviewees told me – they said that “ambitions are sky-high and there’s a need for creative talent, fresh thinking and capacity to achieve our goals”.
So, what’s causing friction and a general lack of satisfaction? Below are the most common themes that emerged from my interviews, combined with an expert panel discussion at IFC 2019. This featured Elsbeth de Ridder, Global Face to Face Fundraising Manager at Save the Children International, Johnty Gray, Mass Engagement Director at WaterAid, Jillian Stewart, Founder & Senior Consultant at PeerWorks Consulting, Louise Lai, Client Services Director at Open and Rebecca Elcome, Consultant at The Resource Alliance.
As marketing channels multiply and new income generation methods open up, charities are increasingly looking to their agency partners for fresh thinking and to be challenged on how they’ve been approaching things. However, some contributors said that they were “stuck in a rut” with retained or longer-term relationships: “Proactiveness and innovation aren’t always part of an agency’s culture and familiarity or reverting to safe zones are prevalent”. Another said, “the sector as a whole faces significant challenges – where are the agencies coming forward with ideas? No-one is talking about them!”.
Other comments were more internally focussed, with staff on the frontline being frustrated by a reversion to the ‘norm’, as management habitually hired the same agencies over and over again. One said, “there’s support for digital and innovation at a higher level, but it’s ensuring that this is followed through to delivery…we need to be braver and more curious about who we’re working with.”
With an increasing demand for innovation and agile working methods, is the traditional agency model fit for purpose? One contributor suggested that, “some larger agencies are structured around, and fixated with, traditional fundraising methods such as phone, direct mail and face-to-face. They’re not really setup for innovation and fresh thinking. Too many layers of client servicing get in the way of connecting with creatives and facilitating progress.” Another added, “reverting to traditional methods has made us lose sight of what people actually respond to – what caught attention 10 or 15 years ago is very different to what works now, especially online.”
On this theme, one interviewee mentioned that their entire approach to procuring agencies was shifting: “…we often feel that we’re the small fish when working with larger agencies – this is both frustrating and a risk to achieving success. I’ve increasingly found that it’s better to work with multiple smaller, boutique agencies that are specialists and who value your custom.”
One senior buyer said that his charity had taken things into their own hands and invested in and developed their own strategy and planning team. This meant that by the time they briefed creative agencies, they could be very clear on scope and direction, and had a framework in place upon which to build creative concepts.
As organisations increasingly encounter better experiences and value by splitting large projects by competence, and working with multiple, specialist agencies to deliver a more holistic solution, my interviewees said that their reliance on retainer-based relationships was in decline. This has had the knock-on effect of ensuring that, on the client side, the pitch process is run efficiently and effectively, and that project managers are able to coordinate multiple agency relationships in order for the outcome to be more than the sum of its parts.
The risk of significantly increasing complexity for little to no gain is definitely real – however, some charities are rapidly learning and upskilling in this area; one contributor said; “We have learned that the traditional pitch process, no matter how robust, doesn’t always find you the right agency in the long-term, so we tried something new. We recently carried out a design sprint with an agency to test their abilities before committing to carrying out the entire project with them. It was a bit like the ultimate chemistry session, or a week-long interview.”
The last thought here was around the delivery team. More than one charity said, “[agencies] have a habit of presenting a senior team at pitch, but then changing that team when the work starts. This is a service industry – it’s all about the people, trust and relationships, so this doesn’t fly well!”
By far the most common theme that came up in my discussions was a strong desire to increase collaboration and create a more open and valuable relationships with agency partners. One interviewee said, “[we’d love to see] a more collaborative process – working through insights and forming a solution together. We’d like to invest more time and resources into full immersion, and think about relationships as more of a partnership.”
Another said, “the more [agencies] collaborate with us, the better. Where things have gone wrong in the past is when an agency takes a brief and disappears into a black hole, only to pitch something that’s way off our thinking.”
However, this might be seen at odds with the earlier comments on splitting projects up and putting everything out to tender, as this contributor observes: “We have a habit of briefing different agencies for different jobs – I feel we’ve fallen out of that more invested, longer term approach, but I hope we go back to that.”
The final bugbear of clients working across function and organisation was a general lack of specialist knowledge of the sector as a whole, the challenges they’re facing, and the audience they’re speaking to. One interviewee said, “[some agencies] charge lots of money for sh*t ideas! This is especially true of retained relationships. We’re regularly patronised – some agencies treat us like idiots”. Another said, “agencies often pitch us unrealistic ideas, budgets and timescales. They need to be more connected and looped into their clients so that they understand their needs and objectives – and see why things are relevant.”
On the face of it, then, there are a good few issues that sound as though they can be solved with some straightforward, tactical tweaks to process and mindset. There are also some positive and constructive advances being made in client/agency dynamics, however, it would be remiss of me not to consider the impact that some of these approaches have on agencies.
The most obvious paradox is that clients are demanding closer and more collaborative relationships with their agencies, yet are increasingly putting every project out to pitch – even for trusted agencies that have proven their competency, dedication and value many times over.
This approach has serious implications for agencies and some feel that there’s an unappreciation on the client side for how much unbillable time must be invested in preparing pitch after pitch (time which must be created and is pulled away from the ‘doing’ and innovating on other projects). Removing all longer-term, retained income will make financial forecasting and business planning much harder for agencies, and is already causing some to question their model and/or team structure.
Is this necessarily a bad thing? Maybe not – some agencies could shed some weight and run a more lean and efficient operation. But if there’s no commitment from charities to grow relationships and nurture trust in partners, it will undoubtedly lead to agencies becoming less invested in immersing themselves in clients’ businesses and being proactive, since they’ll need to devote more time to winning business and chasing margins.
Perhaps a middle ground can be found? In the big brand world, often a lead agency is appointed for a duration of, say, 1-2 years in order to allow them time to embed themselves in the client’s business and test and execute creative. The lead agency also takes on the management of smaller, specialist agencies who are brought on (often at the client’s request) to deliver specific areas of an execution. This model negates the additional pressure on the client to manage multiple agencies whilst still affording autonomy (and accountability) to each entity involved in delivering the solution.
In conclusion, it’s clear that the competencies and methods of working required to achieve success are rapidly evolving on both sides of the relationship. Charities must ramp up their appreciation of this, and continue to break down the hitherto siloed working mentalities prevalent in the sector, and agencies must look at the suitability and sustainability of their own models in order to remain relevant in the future.
We’re already talking to a number of charities who are shaking things up – notably we’re seeing a shift toward using customer journey mapping as a tool for joining up functions across their organisations and undertaking truly integrated campaigns. This methodology is delivering efficiencies and success for charities, and opening up opportunities for a number of specialist agencies to collaborate and deliver genuine innovation, success and change.
A good example of this is joining up above-the-line DRTV campaigns with social media and digital marketing strategy. Given that many charities are experiencing diminishing returns in direct response television, it makes perfect sense to integrate these workstreams, in order to increase the depth of the acquisition funnel.
As the next generation of digital natives move into senior roles at charities, I think we’ll continue to see a significant change in mindset and approach to agency procurement and relationships. But I do hope there’ll be a more open dialogue between the parties and a deeper appreciation of each others’ business challenges. Genuine relationships aren’t one-way traffic, and there is a danger that the overall quality of solutions and level of impact will decline across the sector if all agencies are forced to divert hundreds of hours of senior staff time away from creative development.
It’ll be interesting to see how fast workflows and mindsets change in order to keep up – I feel that the desire to create tangible change and achieve breakthroughs within the sector is palpable. I, for one, am excited by the challenges ahead and look forward to some productive and valuable collaborations with clients and other agencies in the years ahead. As one contributor said “charities need to take more risks with their creative – in order to minimise that risk, use specialist agencies.” I couldn’t agree more!
My thanks to the original article contributors:
Celine Meissonnier, Direct Marketing Manager, Save the Children UK
Charles Williams, Head of Brand & Content, Teenage Cancer Trust
Sam Billington, Head of Digital, Shift.ms
Hannah Dedman, Head of Brand, Marketing & Content, Parkinson’s UK
Lizzie Wrobel, Head of Digital, Sue Ryder
Pasca Lane, Director of Media, British Red Cross