The evolution of relationships in a brave new virtual world

Kim Walker, Chairman of Aprais on the importance of maintaining and building better client agency relationships in a virtual working world.

Kim Walker, Aprais

Founder & Chairman


Ramping up the frequency of contact between clients and agencies doesn’t lead to better relationship measurement scores, new data shows. So, what will make the difference for client-agency relationships in 2021 and why does it even matter?

Remember when business was won and lost over long lunches? The pace of change has left no time for boozy client-agency catch-ups and COVID has distanced us from one another physically in ways we couldn’t contemplate just 12 months ago.

Instead, agencies and clients are touching base virtually, and more often. Figures from our database of more than 22,000 agency-client interactions show that teams are contacting one another more frequently since the lockdowns of 2020. In fact, many are now touching base on a daily basis.

But what our data also shows is that there’s no evidence checking in on a more frequent basis improves the relationship scores between client and agency.

Ultimately the pressure to be always-on could be leading to fatigue and burnout, with 80% of Brits reporting working from home has been bad for their mental health, according to Nuffield Health. Several studies also show employees report working longer hours since the pandemic. While there are advantages to agencies and clients checking in with one another frequently, being constantly available isn’t necessarily translating to better relationships.

It’s worth just taking a moment here to establish why relationships between agencies and clients are so important.

Resilience has become the new necessary behaviour within client-agency relationships.

Kim Walker

Building better relationships

Our data consistently shows that clients get the agencies they deserve. Good clients drive better performances from their agencies. Bad clients, on the other hand, get below average performance. If clients want better, they must be better.

Our data also clearly shows that it’s worth the effort, because better client-agency relationships deliver better work.

We can see this in action through an analysis of Effie award winners. When we looked at winners where the agency and client team had been evaluated by Aprais we found both clients and agencies scored higher than average. A better relationship really can go as far as to be the differentiator that leads to award-winning work.

How to build a better relationship, then, especially as we head into another year in which virtual catchups and home working are set to remain the norm for some time.

Through our database of evaluations, we have been able to identify several areas that can shed more light on the agency-client relationship of today and pick out a range of factors that influence this.

Last year we highlighted how resilience has become the new necessary behaviour within client-agency relationships and is required across all aspects of business performance in all functions and at all levels.

We define resilience as the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties and our data consistently shows that crises large and small, from the COVID pandemic to local market events and issues, have an impact on how marketers rate their agencies’ resilience. There’s a clear opportunity to improve resilience and boost overall relationships.

It’s not all about COVID

It would be a mistake to attribute all the many changes in client-agency relationships, and there are many, as we shall see, to COVID. The business landscape has been changing at an increasingly rapid pace for many years now, so much so that we recently analysed the characteristics of best-performing agencies and clients now, compared to top performers a decade ago, to see how priorities had changed.

We found agencies are craving better management from their clients, over and above the partnership and collaboration approach and strong leadership they valued ten years ago. While both the latter are still important, it’s the timing and process management that came out top. Clients, by turn, want good account management and functional skills from their agencies.

Financial management is also important both to agencies and clients, but the relentless drive among clients to reduce costs also has to be balanced with our data showing that clients that are sensitive to their agency’s financial situation – we call this ‘financial empathy’ – are happier with the resourcing applied to their account. A business relationship where client and agency both ‘win’ financially achieves the best results. The cost savings clients want instead should be achieved through optimisation of work processes and reducing the number of stakeholders, rather than by reducing the input of key staff.

And the final way we’ve identified to improve client-agency relationships is, unsurprisingly, to evaluate them. Over the course of eight evaluations, which we normally carry out every six months, both agency and client scores consistently improve. This is the same time period over which we see many unmanaged relationships falter or fail. Regular objective evaluations as a process in themselves encourage awareness of and investment in the relationship. And no relationship ever flourished without awareness and investment.

Guest Author

Kim Walker, Aprais

Founder & Chairman,


Kim Walker is Founder and Chairman of Aprais, the world’s leading relationship management company that uses data-driven evaluations to drive better, more productive partnerships for global marketers and communications agencies. Before establishing Aprais in 2000, Kim spent 30 years in the advertising industry and held senior management positions in Singapore, Hong Kong, New York and Tokyo. At the age of 27 he was appointed Managing Director of Ted Bates in Hong Kong, overseeing a staff of 180. He has since held leadership positions with global agency networks across Asia Pacific region including Chief Operating Officer for Carat Asia Pacific, President Isobar APAC and Regional President and CEO for M&C Saatchi. Kim’s first entrepreneurial venture, award-winning strategic planning consultancy SPI, was acquired by Aegis PLC. Along with team performance evaluations, Kim is also a global thought-leader on the ageing demographic and co-authored the book Marketing to the Ageing Consumer through Palgrave MacMillan in 2013.

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