Agencies need to develop speed and flexibility to be the perfect partner

Agility in all its forms will be one of the most prized assets of an agency in the future, according to the guest speakers at the latest BD Session.

The BD sessions, which bring together the BD community via Zoom to share insights and knowledge, discussed how brands and agencies will work together in a post-COVID 19 world at its latest gathering.

The experts offering their perspectives included Tony Miller, Marketing Director at WW (previously Weight Watchers), Seb Bardin, Global Head of Acquisition & Marketing for Cleanipedia at Unilever and Lydia Smith, New Business Director at M&C Saatchi London and a BD100 Rising Star winner.

Our own New Business Manager and award-winning stand-up Ali Woods hosted the event and Director of Content Branwell Johnson moderated the Q&A session.

Adapt is the new mantra

The guests explained how they have had to change course quickly when faced with the widespread disruption that began in March. 

M&C Saatchi had mapped out its direction and proposition following the merger with sister agency Lida but the strategy to achieve these goals has had to be adapted. Lydia pointed out: “If your business plan was blown out of the water [in March] there’s a high possibility that it was more tactical than strategic.”

Tony started his new role at WW at the start of April and has not even met his team or agencies face to face. He said that on arrival he found a quarter of his budget had been reallocated back to the business, but his targets have remained broadly similar. “How do you rip all the plans apart and change and continue to work at pace? My agencies have been able to rise to occasion and be flexible.”

Seb has also had to reprioritise business objectives and resources and said: “We have had to review our strategy 360 degrees and we expect this flexibility from partners.”

Collaborative effort

Everyone agreed that the agency-client relationship has moved to one of deeper trust following recent events. Both client and agency will need to respect the stresses and strains their partners on a face among their staff on a very human level as everyone moves into the second half of the year – hopefully a phase that sees a gradual unwinding of business restrictions and a return of opportunities for all.

Lydia said that the recent disruption has helped the agency focus more on solving business problems rather than just answering advertising briefs for clients and prospects. She said her team’s efforts were now designed “to add value in a stressful time” and they made sure they had useful market insights to contribute when talking to marketers.

Seb added that there had been a lot of discussion about the ‘Ts & Cs’ in contracts with agencies and he was pleased to see agencies open to revising their scope of work. In some cases, his team has had to dial-up on local resources at short notice from an agency partner but this has not been a problem.

Tony agreed and pointed out WW had “tapped into teams and resources that were not part of the contract. Agencies were able to tap into that need and swap things in and out. They understand our pressures we are under as a brand to deliver.”

Hone your ‘fast game’

The panel highlighted the need for swift decision-making and execution. From a pitch point of view, Lydia said that the move towards project work instead of retained briefs was accelerating and marketers now needed to hear back quickly. “Agencies need to start setting up to respond to briefs at speed.” 

From a working perspective, Tony said there was a need for faster decision-making and implementation within agencies. “A fast game’s a good game is one of my favourite sayings. We’re looking at smart ways to cut process down and approve things quickly. There’s no time go away, have workshops and strategise – I’m interested in true collaboration and the ability to cut down meetings, internal reviews and draft after draft.”

Pitching in the future

The virtual pitch via Zoom or any other platform will lead to changes in team make-up and how people are positioned, according to Lydia. Trying to find a connection and get the energy going in a pitch is hard when you’re not in the same room.

M&C Saatchi has changed its ‘choreography’ and approach and Lydia says: “The casting and team structure have become really different. We have to put people in front of the camera who are happy to talk into a black hole [if client not on video]. You have to be comfortable in that space and able to stay focused. People have to articulate themselves much quicker than before,” she added.

Seb added that the new realities meant there was less time and opportunity to get to know potential agency partners and peers’ suggestions and word of mouth now played an important role. He said: “I have asked more information and more recommendation from peers than I did before.”

Taking a responsible stance on who you work with

The Black Lives Matter Movement and the widespread discussion on diversity and opportunity for all has put leading by example under the spotlight. The guests were asked if they will be taking positive action and ensuring they only work with partners, that have a diverse, equitable number of BAME people at all levels.

Lydia said that she was definitely seeing an increase in requests to see the agency’ s diversity and sustainability policies and the request was equally relevant for clients. She added it would be helpful if there was a structured forum to ask those questions and get those answers in a way to create a stronger partnership. 

Tony said that WW had been reflecting on how it works and who its works with. It will look at diversity in wide sense of the word and ensure the partners it chooses to work with will do the same doing the same. Seb pointed out that Unilever has made a diversity and inclusion commitment and from a personal point of view as a global business he and his team worked alongside local partners and always strived to be aware and respectful of local cultures.