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DBA Members’ Forum | April Summary

In our April DBA Members’ Forum, we were joined by Jonathan Kirk, author of Up to the Light’s annual What Clients Think report. Here’s a summary of the conversation.

Based on 675 in-depth client interviews, the report offers insight into client expectations and concerns, their relationships with agencies, views on agency new business activity, pitches, websites, marketing content and more. 
During the meeting, three key themes of the report were explored in more detail:

  • A decrease, over the past 10 years, in client’s perception of agency value for money.
  • An increase in in-housing design capabilities.
  • The distinction between managing projects and driving projects, with clients wanting to see more driving.

Perceptions of value for money
In 2014, 66% of clients considered their agency to be good value for money. In 2024 that has fallen to 45%. The important context behind that change is the more financially and time pressurised environment that clients now consider themselves to be working in.
There are three areas that regularly affect these perceptions:

  • Costs – clients understand that conceptual, strategic ‘front end’ work comes at a premium (and this is often where clients perceive the value to be), but feel that often implementation work is charged at a similar rate, without transparency about how long tasks take and who’s working on them. Planning well to avoid misalignment of scope and what has been agreed upon in costs is important. Additionally, there is a feeling that the gold standard, full process approach isn’t necessary every time – agencies may feel that this point is debatable – but being a bit more pragmatic and realising where some projects require just ‘good enough’ is a factor for clients. 
  • Quality of client service – when clients are more time pressured than ever before, having to spend lots of time managing things impacts perceptions of value. More on that below.
  • Final delivery – problems can arise when what was delivered isn’t quite what was promised in the original concept and the agency hasn’t been honest or realistic enough about its practical application. Additionally, sometimes unseen ‘third party’ problems can create strain, and agencies can be seen to be hiding problems.

46% of clients have access to some sort of in-house creative resource, and 22% of those who didn’t stated that their company was considering it. This is often motivated by wanting to save costs, and perceived comfort factors such as it being easier to deal with problems internally if work goes wrong, or a brief is disputed. In-house teams also understand the organisation, its culture and politics and how it operates, and potentially the brand and the market a bit better than an agency can.
However, the picture here isn’t one of agency vs in-house; 80% of clients would like to see better collaboration and 95% of clients with in-house capabilities still see the value in using agencies for particular challenges.
Clients often would like an agency’s fresh perspective and wider reference points, when working on bigger, more strategic projects. Agencies should focus on explaining where their value lies and building experience of dovetailing effectively with in-house teams.
Driving rather than managing
The biggest differentiator between agencies in terms of the experience of working with them is the quality of client servicing. No matter how good the end result is, if the process of getting there was too painful, it’s not considered worth it.
48% of clients believe that their agency’s client management is too transactional. Design agency account management can lack assertiveness. Clients would like agencies to be bolder – to drive the project, own it, be on top of it, push the client, tell them when they get things wrong and continue to offer opinions and thoughts and be keen to impress. Agencies are thought of as the experts, and clients want them to be! It’s not about being aggressive, it’s about being organised and having a defined approach to client servicing and client development.
62% of clients can recall periods where the agency is obviously over-stretched and under-resourced, and these cracks show. This can show up as a drop in responsiveness, a lack of proactivity, or a lack of checking in from senior agency people. Active engagement is vital for both successful project delivery, and for consideration for future, bigger projects.
It is worth having a defined approach to client service, based in understanding the client’s journey with you and the interaction points between you, as well as internal guiding principles of how you communicate, what you do, what you don’t do, etc. This can be really helpful in pitches too, as you can present your approach and reassure clients at that stage that you have thought through both their experience with you, and how you take ownership of projects.

There was much, much more covered in the hour – you really had to be there. Do make sure you join us in our next DBA Members’ Forum on Tuesday 7 May at 4pm BST, look out for an email from me in a few weeks with more details. If you would like to attend, get in touch here

We’ve captured the conversation highlights from the all the Members’ Forums which have taken place and they can all be found here.


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