Cracking the Client and Agency Chemistry Code

by Liz van Zyl

Why is it that the agency with the strongest credentials doesn’t always win the work? In growing StudioSpace, we’ve had the opportunity to witness over 400+ client/agency interactions and potential matches, and one thing always stands out: clients don’t choose agencies based on competency and capability alone… There’s something else, less measurable and yet highly recognisable, at play: chemistry.

To help us crack the chemistry code between clients & agencies, we sat down with Kelly Gilsenan, Director of Marketing at MA Financial, Paul Hewett, CEO of In Marketing We Trust (IMWT) and Kristina Craig, Head of Innovation, at News Corp Australia at the inaugural SXSW Sydney.

While it’s clear that chemistry drives a great match between client and agency, what’s less obvious is what “chemistry” consists of in the first place.

“You know you have good chemistry when you’re working with an agency that, despite technically being an external party, feels like an extension of your team,” explained Kelly Gilsenan.

Kristina Craig from News Corp echoed this when she shared that, due to the fact that she is running a lean squad, she often leans on agency partners to augment project teams. “To ensure that the chemistry and fit is there, I approach agency selection in a similar fashion to hiring a full time team member because we actually view agencies as an extension of our team…”

What makes for good chemistry?

Indicators that you’re likely dealing with an agency / client that would be a good fit include:

  • Complimentary values and vision: Sharing an aligned vision for the future and values focused on delivering on that
  • Trust: Belief in the professionalism, competency and capability of your agency/client partner
  • Transparency: Openness about true strengths and capabilities as well as clarity around challenges, blockers and risks
  • Connection: Actually liking each other - wanting to work together and not losing time off the back of politics or bad communication

Paul Hewitt reminded the SXSW audience that “connection is critical as it forms the foundation for all of the other factors that contribute to chemistry. After all, you can work with the budget (for example), but you can’t work with someone you don’t like”.

“When you get chemistry right,” explained Paul, “success is accelerated… Clear communication with deep empathy expedites decision making.”

Kelly agreed that empathy is a vital part of chemistry and a good client/agency match. She mentioned an example to demonstrate what the costs are when empathy and understanding isn’t present. She recalls once trying to work with an agency who didn’t display deep understanding of the business and how she would often have to repeat basic details about the org structure or model multiple times, often being misunderstood or “not heard” by the agency. When MA Financial then turned to StudioSpace and started working with IMWT as a result, one of the things they valued highly was how well IMWT understood their business.

“The same can be said for another StudioSpace agency we worked with, Houston, who came to their first meeting with us so educated on our business that they told us about our business and what they think we may need, instead of us having to tell them.”

Beyond Chemistry: What drives a great working relationship?

While agency/client chemistry seems to be the single biggest contributor to an agency being selected for a project, it is only the start of the process. It lays the foundation for a great working relationship for the duration of the engagement (and beyond).

To maximise this chemistry and convert it into a longer term synergistic relationship, our panelists highlighted that agencies and clients need to advance the brief together. Clients value it when agencies work with them to deconstruct the brief and build on it or tweak it, so that it actually drives the most value possible in a way that will benefit the client. Often clients may have specific domain or technical expertise gaps internally, which is why they engage with agencies in the first place - because they are looking for a trusted advisor and partner to help them realise their vision and solve their specific problem.

Transparency builds trust. Agencies need to tell the client when they don’t have the capability required for a piece of work, often clients will trust them more as a result and still opt to work with them. At the same time, the more transparent a client can be with their agency partners, the more it empowers and enables them to intuit what the client may need and why.

To this final point above about how transparency builds trust, Paul shared an insightful example about how he was once in a situation with a previous agency, where there was a detrimental data breach at a client that was in a highly regulated industry.

“We were able to be honest with the client about the situation. And beyond that, we were afforded the opportunity to fix it - to work with the client, because we were as invested in finding and implementing a solution as they were. While this was a large-scale crisis, we were able to maintain and even improve our relationship with the client by closely and transparently working with them to find a solution; ultimately recovering the situation and forging a stronger relationship.”

While chemistry is key, genuine capability is critical too. As a client-side leader, the world has changed significantly due to continuous fragmentation of digital and marketing services and development of new specialisms. Recognising what ​​real specialism and true capability looks like is increasingly complex.

Kristina explains that “the digital innovation landscape is getting more complex and fragmented everyday, but also exciting and dynamic - the art of the possible has never been so expansive. To bring that to life, like many R&D focused teams, we (NewsCorp) went from looking to agencies to bring crypto, NFT and web 3 expertise, towards Generative AI product development overnight.”

“One constant that remains regardless of the capability, is the magic of weaving these technologies together to deliver experiences and products that deliver real customer value.”

Real specialism, then could be seen from real “watch outs” being highlighted and the agency being able to advance a brief rather than take it as it is. Kristina shared the example of “when we were considering launching an NFT collection, one agency particularly stood out in that they highlighted the need for utility beyond being a collectible piece of art, and a gap around building hype and a discord community around the project well in advance.”

The SXSW Sydney panel on cracking the client-agency chemistry code offered some practical insights, underscoring that while credentials matter, the intangible element of chemistry is a pivotal determinant in the client-agency selection process. This chemistry hinges on mutual values, trust, transparency, and genuine connection — elements that transcend conventional metrics but are palpable in successful partnerships.

The panelists illuminated that a harmonious client-agency relationship feels less like a contractual obligation and more like a natural extension of the internal team. Such synergy isn’t just beneficial; it’s essential for navigating the complexities and dynamism of today’s digital innovation landscape. As the realms of crypto, NFTs, Web 3.0, and Generative AI expand, the ability for agencies to not only adapt but also foresee and aptly advise on these trends becomes invaluable.

In conclusion, the SXSW Sydney panel highlighted that successful client-agency relationships transcend credentials, rooted deeply in chemistry characterised by shared values, trust, and genuine connection. This chemistry is crucial for navigating the rapidly evolving digital landscape, demanding agencies to be adaptable and forward-thinking. Beyond chemistry, transparency in crises, mutual respect, and collaborative problem-solving stand out as vital for a robust partnership. Ultimately, cracking the client-agency chemistry code is about fostering relationships that are strong enough to accommodate the fast-changing landscape that clients and agencies find themselves in today.

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