The Evolving Client and Agency Relationship

In this article written exclusively for ExchangeWire, Neil Jones (pictured below), senior digital marketing manager at Sky Betting & Gaming and author of the Media Strategist blog, explains how the agency model has changed over the past year, and outlines how brands can poise themselves for success as the world re-emerges from lockdown.

Agencies and Brands have had to contend with some considerable challenges over the past 12 months – from navigating the initial Brand safety concerns brought on by lockdown one, to the Facebook boycott; navigating the loss of the IDFA, to now turning our attention to planning for the deprecation of third-party cookies – all whilst scenario planning for re-emergence post-lockdown.

For context, here’s a very quick list of questions you may be familiar with, or have been asked to shed light on, over the past year or so:

How do we do what’s right for the Brand during lockdown?

How do we ensure we don’t appear alongside anything COVID related?

What’s our lockdown exit plan for summer 2020/21?

How should we navigate Black Friday without our retail business to support?

How do we control frequency to customers over a sensitive time?

How do we navigate Christmas during a particularly sensitive era?

What’s the IDFA and why is it important? What’s our plan to mitigate its disappearance?

Why are third-party cookies important and how are we planning to mitigate the effects of their deprecation?

What are the e-privacy regulations and how might they impact our business?

As marketers, being asked these types of questions on a regular basis is commonplace and certainly has been of the type we’ve previously taken in our stride. What’s made the past 12 months so difficult, however, is the (get ready for it) unprecedented nature of some of these hurdles. Brands have to behave in accordance to public sensitivity to COVID and media budgets have been chopped and changed in accordance to when and where Brands believe it to be safe to play.


Strategic guidance in times of crisis

Neil Jones

The fundamental role of an outsourced third party is to support their clients through whatever means they are paid and capable during whatever circumstances they happen to be working through.

In times of uncertainty, we go into full information-gathering mode in order to best inform any key decisions that need to be made. BAU delivery planning that had been conducted well in advance was thrown to the wind once COVID-19 struck, and Brands were required to work tactically with their agency partners to scenario plan for the best outcome – whether that be pausing media entirely or directing spend to alternative channels.

We tend to find Strategy sitting entirely at the Brand side, with little ownership by agencies (and rightly so – it works). But where effective agencies have managed to really add value over the past year has been by proactively identifying key opportunities, and applying pivots to, plans that respond to the shifting landscape of consumer demand or behaviour. A few examples spring to mind here: the growth of the Mobile Gaming market over lockdown unearthed the targeting potential of mobile apps; the importance of consumer trust in local news meant that buying media across premium publishers online, either programmatically or directly, has become a must. The need to meet increased content consumption demand should pique the creation of original branded content to entertain new or prospective customers – of which Paid Social should form the foundation of amplification.

We’ve seen a real opportunity for agencies to showcase their capabilities in innovative thinking – something that can often be mistaken for selling, or simply not often entertained if it doesn’t fit within the realm of strategic priorities. The difficulty here is that there’s a distinct difference between relaying blanket insights and offering one generic template for your entire client base vs. providing bespoke logic that’s applied specifically to your client’s vertical alongside potential avenues to explore. This is a key differentiator here between agencies who’ve cracked how to demonstrate their value and those who have struggled.

The opportunity for agencies to lead here will last for the foreseeable until – and if – we see relative shifts back to what pre-COVID-19 levels looked like. Your agency should already be thinking about how to tactically approach the emergence of UK consumers from lockdown and think about how to responsibly and relevantly position advertising that revolves around their hopes and plans for summer.


Build your board

Now more than ever I truly believe there’s a need for an external “board of advisors” for Brands to turn to in times of need. This can range from consultative services, to their media agency, to specialist digital agencies or research shops. What is absolutely clear is that impartial advice, and being able to lean on the right agency when the need arises, has been crucial during the last 12 months.

There’s an increasing demand for digital guidance with impartiality and this has been building for some time. Less “this is what we’re telling our clients to do” and more, “this is exactly how your Brand should be doing this”.

Brands need transformative support that is capable of guiding their core capabilities to effectively activate multi-channel digital marketing – ultimately future-proofing their proposition and keeping them competitive in-market. Using the loss of IDFA or Cookie deprecation as examples, Brands can’t afford not to develop a comprehensive impact assessment and build a clear view of potential exposure to loss of Reach or Conversion. They need support in this assessment and delivery process from an agency that really understands the landscape and can quickly interpret what new updates and changes truly mean for their business.

Even the most competitive of in-house digital teams suffer from the “we don’t know what we don’t know” feeling - that notorious fear of not having captured absolutely everything when approaching the hurdles mentioned above. Agile agencies are perfectly positioned to drive real relationship value here and shore up client retention for years to come by being that impartial, external guiding voice. This is becoming an ever-important facet of agencies’ arsenals, and integral to their becoming part (or entirely) consultative and part doer.


The relationship between agency and client has been as ever-changing as the landscape which both have had to navigate over the past year. One thing, however, is abundantly clear – the need for agency partners is still alive and well. As with previous times of crisis, 2020 created a clear opportunity for agencies to re-evaluate and, for those willing to be bold with presenting tailored logic to clients, reinvent themselves. If you’ve enjoyed reading the above, follow me over at www.media-strategist.com for more.