By Richard Benyon
Being a two-way feedback exchange between a committed client and an active agency, the agency evaluation process could be better described as a relationship evaluation. And while much has been written about agency evaluations from the client's perspective, there's been little coverage of the agency's side and its specific practices and behaviors.
To better understand the agency's perspective on this important process, Decideware conducted a series of interviews in recent months with leading agency-side executives and specialized relationship consultants. These agency contributors span different networks and holding companies, and each one has worked with large, global, multibrand marketing organizations.
Their opinions hold a number of commonalities and provide a valuable inside look at how agencies approach the evaluation process. Here is a synthesized look at what they say contributes to a successful evaluation.
A Successful Evaluation Process Begins at the Top
Experts were unanimous in suggesting active engagement from the client's senior marketing leadership is foundational to an effective agency evaluation program.
This engagement is particularly vital in relationships where agencies might be viewed as more of a vendor than a partner, as it can provide an opportunity to talk about the relationship in a different way. Advertisers striving for excellence know that the better they are as a client, the more they will benefit from their agency's potential.
Critically, there must be a shared sense of purpose, where both parties are willing to change the way they behave, manage, and contribute to the relationship. Without that commitment, agency feedback can sometimes be viewed as "whining" rather than constructive and remedial.
At the first sign that a client is not embracing the spirit of the program, is unwilling to change, or worse, uses the process as a punitive measure, the evaluation will not deliver the desired results and is likely to fail. "We appreciate clients who look to create a balance in the evaluation process, so it doesn't feel like the agency is on trial," notes James Rose, business director at Adam & Eve DDB.
The best-of-breed clients always ask themselves: "What do we need to do or become to be seen as the best client that this agency works with?"
As experts note, CMOs should insist that the process of making sure their companies' brands are getting the best work from the agency includes a continuous review of their own internal processes. This helps clients avoid hindering agencies from delivering ground-breaking work. Both parties win when they share and act on meaningful feedback.
Use Both Formal and Informal Feedback
Another consensus among those interviewed is the importance of balancing formal and informal feedback. Both are fundamentally critical to the success of any relationship, though experts did point out that informal feedback was no replacement for a formal process.
A formal evaluation generally includes at least an annual face-to-face meeting in which specific details of the evaluation are discussed and an action plan is implemented. "Evaluation and subsequent collaboration sessions provide a continuous feedback loop to drive the conversation," says Chad Cathers, worldwide managing director at EightBar, a bespoke unified Ogilvy/GroupM team dedicated to IBM. Indeed, formal feedback makes it more difficult to sidestep issues that have arisen over the course of the relationship, and having a formal process for addressing those issues helps agencies and clients in "overcoming the barriers and blockers" between them and great work, Cathers says.
Another benefit of the formal evaluation is that it raises the visibility of issues that might otherwise go unaddressed. Most experts said feedback received during a formal evaluation shouldn't come as a surprise, but that they had been blind-sided on occasion. Those instances had provided visibility to hidden issues that were at times harming the professional relationship and overall work. Generally, they said the criticisms lay hidden because stakeholders on each side, working daily with each other, did not want to offend one another. They suppressed what they perceived to be negative feedback to avoid conflict.
By conducting formal evaluations, client and agency partners were provided a safety valve that allowed them to discuss those issues in what was perceived to be a less emotional environment.
Finding the Right Time
A majority of those interviewed felt that a twice-yearly evaluation is the optimal frequency. An annual evaluation is not enough to provide an accurate reflection across the year. "It is vital to collapse the flash-to-bang time," says Hopp Faculty Fellow Professor of Practice at Michigan State University Greg Taucher, former head of global accounts and contracts at DDB Worldwide. A more frequent cadence provides a feedback loop to drive conversation and address issues before they can fester.
It is important to ensure the discussion during the evaluation process not only covers historical ratings and comments (where most of the conversation focuses on what happened in the past), but also future opportunities, says Ed Stapor, chief client officer at Havas Health & You.
This time can be used to discuss, among other topics, client re-organizations, a review of what's coming up for the brand and the relationship, and for planning how to set up the client and agency teams for future success. Stapor says clients and agencies should ask themselves: "What are the opportunities to elevate that game?"
In one program described by an interviewee who asked to remain anonymous, the client and agency created a formal "social contract" outlining how each party would act as part of a cohesive team and what communication processes were needed to support this model. They collectively mapped out strategies for their engagement and ongoing action plans.
Whatever gets discussed, both parties need to ensure that the feedback process is given due consideration. It takes time to craft a well-considered response, so surveys should not be rushed. Participants need to understand the nuances of both providing and receiving criticism. This is not about opinions and viewpoints; it's about honest and nonconfrontational feedback to build on strengths and resolve issues.
Providing Agency-on-Client Feedback
Every interviewee agreed strongly that it is good policy to include 360-degree feedback. That is, the formal performance management survey should include an agency-on-client review in addition to the client-on-agency evaluation. And while experts agree on the value of the 360-degree review, a common complaint about agency evaluations of clients is that they often do not elicit realistic feedback.
Working in an industry reliant on client satisfaction, agencies may feel direct feedback could harm their relationships, jeopardize their accounts, or, in a worst-case scenario, contribute to the loss of business. Overcoming that hesitancy at times comes down to the client opening the door to the feedback process. They must create a realm of trust where open and honest input can be provided without fear of reprisal.
On the agency side, Stuart Klein, the healthcare practice lead at Interpublic Group, says leadership needs to signal they see this process as real, with true co-accountability, and that feedback needs to be honest, sincere, and reflective of the current state of the relationship. Ideally, those in the relationship's client role should adopt a "velvet glove" approach and be able to push back on agency staff when they try to sugarcoat feedback. "I added 'Brand Champion Psychotherapist' to my business card," Klein says.
Though it might be acceptable to vent frustrations internally, when it's time for the evaluation, everything should be unemotional and factual. Feedback should zero in on issues that are fixable. "Focus on the vision and not the emotion," advises Mark Lollback, CEO of GroupM Australia and New Zealand. To achieve excellence, agency feedback should be direct, honest, focused on client barriers, and include specific examples.
Debriefing and Action Planning
Once two-way feedback has been collected and analyzed, it's time to hold a debrief, set action plans in place, and track outcomes.
For some clients, sharing data openly with an agency partner may require a paradigm shift, experts warn. An alternative is to ask a third party to lead and mediate the discussion in order to provide a neutral perspective.
Being involved in the evaluation is seen by most interviewees as one of the most important parts of their role and a key touchpoint for the direction of the business. Debrief meetings should be prioritized and attended by the key client and agency relationship owners.
When building action plans after the debrief, all parties should also seek to differentiate between problems and facts. A problem can be solved; a fact needs to be managed, notes Jeff Estok, a partner at Navigare.
"If the client CEO has last right of approval, and the CEO is hard to schedule time with — causing a crunch to timelines — it is doubtful that that is indeed a problem, in that the CEO will likely continue to act that way. So, there is no fix," Estok explains. "It is most likely a fact and the parties then have to find ways to manage around that behavior."
A good understanding of the dynamics and ability to build contingencies into the action plans will help with overall success. Additionally, when action plans have been created, it is crucial to schedule and discuss these at regular check-ins.
Proactively Dealing with Issues
An issue with a specific stakeholder on the client side can be one of the most difficult situations to address. These can be grouped into three main areas:
- Behavioral. A stakeholder is displaying behaviors that are not conducive to a positive working environment
- Role. A stakeholder is assuming responsibilities that the agency provides
- Capability. A stakeholder does not have the experience or skills necessary to enable the agency to deliver its best work
Whatever the case, experts say the conversation needs to be conducted through the lens of the client and the impact the issue is having on their business. It may be necessary for the agency to undertake an internal workshop with its team in which these specific issues are broken down and concrete examples documented. It is vital to make the examples factual, showing evidence of behavioral, role, or capacity issues, and how that impacts the agency's performance (and by extension the client's business outcomes).
Recognizing and Reapplying Success
In addition to exploring opportunities for improvement, agency evaluations are also a useful mechanism for understanding what is going well, recognizing those successes, and identifying ways to apply those successes to other parts of the business.
Clients providing positive feedback to their agency counterparts can be highly motivating for agency teams, experts say. Meaningful, real-time recognition generates loyalty, which may lead to agency talent actively seeking to work on the account. Internally, agency leadership should also recognize high-performing teams and "break out the champagne for great work," says Mike Hudnall, the global head of WPP's Health Practice.
Another role for agency evaluations is to identify best practices. If the agency team consistently sees similar types of successful activity, they should take those learnings and apply them to other client relationships. To encourage agency teams to achieve the highest level of performance, their leaders should socialize the specific work and behaviors that are needed to get a "five out of five."
Even though calling out successful individuals by name does have merit, experts advise there may also be staff behind the scenes who have been foundational to the overall success of a project. If a wider group is contributing, agencies should have the entire team meet the client to be recognized.
Aligning for a Productive Relationship
Best-in-class clients and agencies understand that evaluation programs should be primarily focused on ensuring agencies are aligned with their clients' needs and imperatives. "Alignment is a product of when the agency is both fit for purpose and operates at levels of peak performance," says Cam Carter, a partner at Navigare. "Without alignment, both internally and externally, nothing functions properly; nor does it endure."
Meaningful two-way feedback, with active participation from the agency, is one of the most effective ways to deliver alignment. It provides the agency an opportunity to produce its best work, and, as a result, help the client achieve its business goals for long-term success.
Richard Benyon is the CEO and co-founder of Decideware, a partner in the ANA Thought Leadership Program.