The Agency-Client Maturity Matrix part 2

In the first part of the Maturity Matrix, I discussed the effect of the maturity level of both agencies and clients on their relationship. A mismatch in the level of maturity can present inherent problems in the way clients and agencies work together, even though both parties may be working hard at that relationship. Essentially the expectations and demands each places on the other are out of sync, negating the potential for a long-term, fruitful relationship.

I then went on to discuss the characteristics of a client at each of the three stages of Maturity – Dependent, Independent and Interdependent. In this second part, I examine the qualities of an agency at each stage, and in the following part we’ll look at the interplay between each and the impact it has on the relationship.

Agency Maturity levels

Dependent – a dependent agency is simply an implementation engine. It provides no strategic advice to the client and relies 100% on it for campaign direction. The agency is wholly reactive, awaiting commands from the client which it then carries out. Without those demands, the agency assumes that the client is content.

A dependent agency is unlikely to be large since its lack of strategic input negates its ability to win and retain discerning clients. It may however grow to a reasonable, mid-tier size through operational efficiency. It may not be smart, but it sure knows how to work hard and to implement.

A dependent agency will see virtue in action. If it isn’t busy, it’s adding no value. Consequently, its approach will be task-oriented and deadline-focused, rather than results-focused. A dependent agency will report a worthy amount of activity to its client to justify its fees. Reporting will predominate, but evaluation will be minimal. There will be little attempt to assess the performance of activities in terms of results, and then to tie those results back to commercial impact for the client. Cost-justification of its campaigns will be non-existent.

A dependent agency will retain its clients through its work rate and its heart, rather than its head. Staff churn will be high as a result, and client churn will probably also be a factor.

Independent – an independent agency differs from a dependent one in that it will not be afraid to give strategic advice. It will be strong at implementation and view this as a strength, but it will value its own ability to drive campaigns. It will want its voice to be heard and will not be afraid to say no to a client, even walking away from the relationship if it feels its opinion is not sufficiently valued.

An independent agency can grow to be large and build a reputation for being forthright, driven and direct. Equally, some may regard the agency as arrogant, aloof and distant. Counter-intuitively, the agency may draw a sense of satisfaction from this reputation and almost seek to foster it. Some clients just don’t ‘get it’.

An agency at this level will regard the client with respect, but will be more certain of its own counsel. It’s likely then that the agency will drive the campaign, both from a strategic and an implementation level. The agency will often find its clients frustrating to deal with. Its reporting style will be ad hoc, partial and lacking in detail. The need for reporting is almost to question its value, but when pressed it will provide evaluation which is a justification of its existence. An independent agency resents being regarded as a supplier, and will view questions about evaluation from that perspective.

An independent agency will often feel under-valued and that its clients are lucky to be working with it. One day, the agency will find better clients which truly admire its performance.

Interdependent – the highest level of agency maturity is Interdependence. At this level, the agency has grown in size and experience so that it is not beholden to one client and can act with true autonomy. With that stability comes a new-found respect for and understand of the client’s capabilities and challenges. The agency recognizes the parameters within which the client must operate and adjusts its behavior accordingly. For example, instead of volunteering a shopping list of ideas, the agency will put together a structured program of tactics which are easily implementable within the client’s time and resources and which track back to the strategy and overall corporate objectives.

Both client and agency will provide strategic input and carry out tactical implementation. Objectives will be set and agreed mutually. Reaching those objectives is regarded as much a success for the agency as for the client.

An interdependent agency will be focused on results rather than activities. It will not look for excuses but solutions to mutual challenges in delivering the campaign. It realizes that the PR campaign as a whole must be a success for it to maintain a healthy ongoing relationship. Where there are faults on its part, it will own up to them and address them. Where there are weaknesses on the client side, it will flag them and also look for ways to compensate. In the truest sense, the agency will seek to be an extension of the client’s marketing team since it understands that is how the client’s management team regard its performance. If the PR campaign succeeds, it will succeed.

An interdependent agency’s evaluation methodology will be sophisticated but practical. It will not regard evaluation as ‘ass covering’ or as a justification of its own existence, more as a feedback mechanism on performance. The agency will be focused on trend analysis and improvement more than spot checks to secure its budget moving forward.

An interdependent agency is as demanding of the client as it is of itself – it has to be that way since both client and agency are one team.

In the next part, I will look at how the mix of agency and client Maturity levels impact the nature of their relationship.