‘Walk the walk of your corporate values’: Confessions of a digital agency exec on lost leverage in its client relationship due to Covid

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Agencies are often at clients’ beck and call — that’s the nature of being a vendor — but that can cause strain in the agency/client relationship. This past year amid the pandemic, agencies lost leverage to push back when clients’ asks required staff to work overtime or round the clock, according to a digital agency exec, who says that the potential of losing a client during a difficult year had many agencies scared.

In the latest edition of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor, we hear about how the relationship between agencies and clients has been strained even further over the last year. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

You said you’re frustrated with brands’ hypocrisy with work-life balance messaging. Can you explain what you mean?

In this climate, there’s a lot of careful positioning that brands are doing. They’re making sure that they’re communicating messages that are very much in line with the times, which is good, I don’t want to discourage that in any way, shape or form. I think a lot of the changes brands are making are great. The problem is, it feels like oftentimes, it’s almost out of sight, out of mind. They say they’re really accommodating to work-life balance or something like that, but they have no problem squeezing agencies, asking for pitches that are unpaid, not paying for work on time, or having really crazy payment terms. It’s really not that uncommon for you to have net-90 but you’re paid nine months after the project.

Can you give us an example of the kind of hypocrisy you mean?

I can’t remember the specifics, but I remember one brand we were working with had a lot of press around their maternity and paternity leave policy. At the same time, we were getting squeezed by procurement after a rigorous (unpaid) pitch. I remember looking at my pregnant colleagues working on the business and just feeling like it was them grandstanding for PR. They just push the problems downhill. I’ve seen the same thing with diversity. Clients talking about the importance of working with agencies that have diverse teams, while having all white teams. It’s just so odd.

Has it been easier for brands to say one thing and mean another during the pandemic?

It definitely has been easier. Things have stabilized a bit now but certainly early on the industry was in turmoil, people didn’t know where they stood, budgets were getting cut and people didn’t know to what extent. Agencies, as a whole, went out of their way to be extremely accommodating. As for why it’s easier now, a vendor is not an individual. It’s not like an employee who might come up to you and say, “Hey I’ve pulled three all-nighters. This is unfair.” A vendor is a company, an organization. Agencies are scared of upsetting clients. They don’t need to nor do they want to hear that an agency team had to work all weekend on a project. It’s out of sight, out of mind. There’s almost some plausible deniability at play, to a certain extent. 

So brands are putting out messages to have a work-life balance but don’t care if agency employees have that. What does seeing that do to you? 

Seeing a message like that when you’re working late at night on that brand can be frustrating and a bit demoralizing. It feels a little bit like it’s all for spin, all for PR, so it can ring a bit shallow. It doesn’t feel like they’re doing it for the right reasons.

What does that do to your relationship? 

It can create friction and strain. The brand/agency relationship is always a delicate balance. You want to push back and pick your battles, but you need to be accommodating. It’s a service business. If you’re at a restaurant and someone sends the food back, one time it’s fine but again and again and again it’s like, what do you want? It can feel a little one-sided. 

A year into Covid, has there been any shift with brands that do that? 

Things have normalized a bit now. For a while there was an all-hands-on-deck feeling, we were all trying to over-service accounts and essentially figure things out. It wasn’t the time to push back. It was the time to be like the customer is always right. 

What do you wish you could tell brands when they are pushing agencies too much or being hypocritical in their ways? 

Pay on time. Pay for work. Don’t ask for free work (i.e. pitches). Having agencies go through brutal negotiations after a pitch where we’ve already sunk a great deal of costs is not a fair way to treat partners. Walk the walk of your corporate values versus pushing it all downhill.

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