Why we need to get better at client confrontation

EMEA agencies are falling behind at seizing the initiative and challenging clients, according to data from Aprais. Have we become wary of confrontation?

“Better client-agency relationships deliver better work.” That’s not my statement – although of course I agree with it. In fact it was made by Kim Walker, the chairman of Aprais, during his recent talk at the EACA International Agencies Council meeting. As you may know, for the past 20 years Aprais has specialized in evaluating – and hopefully improving – client-agency relationships.

At the heart of Kim’s talk was a really interesting question: how has the client-agency relationship changed during the Covid-19 era?

In response, he produced a chart based on data from over 22,000 client- agency evaluations conducted by Aprais, comparing agency performance between 2000 and 2020 in the EMEA, the Americas and APAC, as judged by clients. There was room for improvement in most areas, but two stood out.

In EMEA, clients clearly felt that their agencies needed to be stronger in the areas of Resilience and Challenge.

Kim defined Resilience as the ability to withstand and bounce back from crises. To be fair, he said, in the advertising world “resilience has always been a key requirement – but Covid has highlighted the need for it more than ever.” Hence the greater emphasis placed on it by clients.

The Challenge issue is more alarming. In this context, Challenge means taking the initiative, challenging the status quo and addressing conflict. European agencies are behind when it comes to challenging clients.

Kim admitted that there were concessions to be made on the client side: “Agencies need to be embraced as consulting partners – and clients need to be open to being challenged. Of course, the only way that can happen is if the agency steps up and fulfils that role.”

He suggested that the current ambience of job insecurity may have discouraged confrontation. “People may be afraid of losing their job if they step out of line or say something out of place.”

It’s a situation that breeds risk-avoidance. This is dangerous, Kim pointed out, because great work requires courage. In a relationship where there is little or no confrontation, risky ideas may be supressed. “You may have a unique creative response that you’re afraid to present to the client.”

Kim described Challenge as “an extraordinary opportunity”. But I believe it’s a necessity. It seems that we Europeans have become a little too timid when it comes to arguing our corner.

I’m not talking about being aggressive. I’m talking about confidently sharing our knowledge with our partners. We are more than able to play the consultancy role that Kim described. We have the expertise to defend our opinions: we can use data to show our clients what we know, not just what we believe.

I also think we can be guilty of pushing problems back instead of stepping up to the plate. We create situations where we wait until the next meeting, rather than being in a constant conversation with our clients, which is what a partnership is all about.

Interestingly, Aprais data reveals that the number of conversations between agencies and clients had risen during the pandemic. In the first half of 2020, 31% of agencies surveyed said they were in contact with their client every single day. By the second half of the year this had leapt up to 50%.



And yet, client satisfaction with the very same agencies did not increase dramatically, said Kim. “It’s not the frequency of contact – it’s the quality, not the quantity that counts.”

I believe we need both. Of course we shouldn’t be in touch with our clients simply to demonstrate our constant availability. But regular dialogue enables us to address challenges quickly and move projects towards a successful conclusion, which is surely our common goal.

Some closing words from Kim Walker to EACA members: “Challenge, the ability to take risks and be a more bold, is something that all staff need to be encouraged to do. Because it’s an opportunity for improved client- agency performance.”

We’re in an advantageous position: because boldness is at its most effective when backed up by knowledge and experience.