What does the new client-agency relationship look like?

The marketer’s remit has become more complex over the past year and agencies have had to evolve to keep up. So what does the new client-agency relationship look like?


Having spent the first 15 years of his career as a marketer for brands including Unilever, Coca-Cola, Nokia and Orange, Justin Billingsley knows how complicated the life of a chief marketing officer can be and how that’s escalated.

“As a senior marketer, thinking about advertising and media was probably only about 20 per cent of my life. I only had around five channels to worry about and only about three or four agencies,” Billingsley, now chief marketing officer at agency network Publicis Groupe, recalls.

“In the ten years since I’ve been a client, the fragmentation of how to reach people and considering things like whether you’re spending money effectively, investments in tech and whether you need to own it or ‘rent’ it, and who my partners should be, that level of complexity has increased exponentially.”

Those challenges, of course, become the challenges of advertising agencies, whether they’re heartland is in media or creative. They are being put under more pressure to justify why they shouldn’t be squeezed out of an equation where brands are taking more ownership of everything from sales channels to data, customers and tech partnerships.

“Brands are splitting into two categories: the direct-to-consumer brands that have flourished and have always had less reliance on a media agency because they have the capabilities in-house, or legacy brands, like Unilever and Procter & Gamble, that are developing direct-to-consumer channels and increasing their ecommerce expertise, which is bringing in-housing into play,” observes Charlie Crowe, founder of the Festival of Media and former industry editor who now runs his own consultancy. 

This means more technology companies seeking out direct conversations with brands, Crowe says, adding another barrier to the brand-agency relationship. “It’s clear there will continue to be a massive transfer of reliance from the agency to the technology platform,” he predicts.

Innovating to develop new models

The response from Billingsley and the leadership team at Publicis Groupe has been to develop new agency models to meet more client needs. For example, the Le Pub bespoke hub developed for Heineken, the Le Truc creativity centre and the Marcel internal employee platform, which claims to have saved more than 2,000 jobs within the group during the pandemic. 

Similarly, agency group VCCP has doubled down on its “four areas of excellence”: communications, media, experience and data. This comes as rising demand for app development, user experience and user interface expertise has seen it become more agile at working to multiple scenarios, says chief strategy officer Michael Lee.

We are not an advertising agency or media company, we’re also not a consultancy. They happen to be things we do. Our job is to work with a client and help them find growth in a platform world

“Some of our clients have needed more agency time than ever given the sheer scale of work that needs to be done or redone,” he says. “It’s a combination of many things, dependent on the client and their situation: reducing budgets, the need for transparency and flexibility, in-housing, a crowded digital space, to name a few.

“It’s the holy grail to develop brand platforms that deliver a seamless, consistent brand idea across advertising and experience. Those who can interpret the firehose of customer and media data we get, and turn that into actionable insights to become great creative ideas, are going to be valuable.”

Putting the spotlight on agility and collaboration

So what is the perspective of client-side marketers? Heightened agency agility has been key for Andrew Smith, global marketing director at pet nutrition brand YuMOVE, who last April delivered a TV campaign from brief to broadcast in three weeks, thanks to remote working. It’s this swifter pace and more direct collaboration with creative teams he wants to continue post-pandemic.

“We actually had more regular access to the creative teams, and we’ve had to work more collaboratively through screens and get as much as we can from each other, rather than be one or two steps removed through planners and account managers,” he says. 

A closer working relationship has also become more valuable for Ross Farquhar, marketing director at ice cream brand Little Moons, who took on the role in October 2020, hiring a new creative and media agency. He decided to abandon the traditional, and arguably arduous, pitching process of brief, presentation and selection in favour of a more chemistry-based approach.

“It was purposefully not a pitch,” he says. “We said we just want to have a session to get to know you and work out whether we have good chemistry. I’m going to give you a brief so you can give me your instinctive hypotheses. But I don’t want to see the answer, because I want to work with whoever we’re going with to get there. I just want to see how you think and where you might go fishing. So it felt fairer and more respectful.”

Meanwhile, Page & Page and Partners’ client Fresenius Kabi, a healthcare company, has worked more closely with the agency to use insights to better reach its audience, which naturally has gravitated online.

“One of the challenges that has emerged is getting that cut through in a crowded digital space. I’d expect this to play into brands’ expectations for agencies going forward, looking for the blend of knowledge, design and creativity that can really make them stand out,” says Lyndsay Woodall, senior contract services manager at the company.

Publicis Groupe’s Billingsley also gives the example of Marriott, which the agency works with on not just its loyalty programme and booking platform, but the wider customer experience and journey. This is indicative, he says, of that wider trend of brands wanting to own their customer relationships.

The future of agencies as strategic business partners

With briefs becoming more business oriented, Billingsley ventures that the agency is no longer playing solely in the advertising space. The growing scope for solving wider client business problems opens the door to become “purveyors of growth”, he believes.

“We are not an advertising agency or media company, we’re also not a consultancy. They happen to be things we do. Our job is to work with a client and help them find growth in a platform world. The future of the business is to be able to solve those high-level client problems,” says Billingsley.

But is it realistic for agencies to play this role, in a world where consultancies like Accenture now have a stake in the creativity game through its purchase of agency Karmarama?

Crowe agrees media agencies have the talent and data to successfully become more consultative businesses, but he questions whether they or their creative counterparts have the ear of chief executives in the same way the “Big Four” do.

Billingsley is convinced that by becoming growth enablers, agencies like his can help more chief marketing officers get into the C-suite and this will be paramount in coming out on top.

“Our job is to help our CMOs get up to the top table, where they can be the voice of their customers. If you’re responsible for knowing who your customers are, then you’re responsible for growth because you know where that growth is going to come from,” he concludes.