The new game for client-agency-relationships

July 26, 2021
3 min read

It’s been a week since we published our book on “agency-client-relationships”. Thanks for all the positive comments, book orders and signs of interest. The book has been written in German language. But we’ll publish a series of articles in English language, too, summarizing our recommendations on how to build more sustainable and effective agency-client relationships. Today, I chose to share four key developments which affect the way we work together effectively as agencies and as clients.

  • Clients and their agency counterparts are navigating a fluid environment. Customer needs and expectations are changing at an increasing pace. The traditional top-down influencing model has been turned on its head. And every player and stakeholder can disrupt a company`s communication and reputation any time on any channel. This change asks for utmost flexibility, speed and 24/7 attention. How do we setup ourselves for success?
  • The lifecycle of client-agency-relationships has shortened. Decade-long relationships have become the exception. Project contracts are the new normal. Resource planning on both sides is challenging resulting in extra commercial pressure. Agencies try to expand their remits, Hence, the traditional swim lanes between different agencies dissolve. This new opportunity comes with the challenge to select the right agency-set-up. How do clients make the right choices?
  • Digitalization has given rise to a new range of agency specialist roles, transforming the way teams work with each other, with a higher degree of labor division and many new interfaces. Teams are grappling with the challenges of this development while embarking on a continuous learning journey and re-defining their careers. How will we assign the best talent mix for every given assignment?
  • Talent is on the move. It has become harder to retain them, when predictability of client projects is low and agency (and client) systems are too rigid to provide freedom and space to develop. How will the future of work look like?

How can clients and agencies collaborate more effectively – within this fluid environment, with one goal in mind? Our experience as client and agency leaders tells us, that together, we need to be better teams, who are aware of and respect one another`s perspective. We cannot afford to rush into a new relationship, gazing at the new partner through rose-tinted glasses, without a thorough knowledge of the relationship success factors at every single defining moment. This conviction drove us to write this book. We are going to share some key learnings during the next weeks to come. And we hope to hear from you and discuss ways forward to a more effective collaboration.

What is the biggest change and challenge you are observing about client-agency-relationships today?

Cornelia Kunze, 2021, July


Strategic communications, finally.

July 6, 2021
2 min read

I hesitated to write about this topic. Just because it seems trivial to me, because we talked about this for decades. It`s a big topic. And at the same time, it`s almost a pleonasm. How can communications be non-strategic?  What the past 30 years taught me though: it can and often is non-strategic, and useless. 

It can be random, tactical – and not effective, for all the understandable but wrong reasons. 

Sometimes, the tactics communication is known for, such as glamorous events, big press conferences, a film gone viral or a “cool” new employee engagement tool, are seen as the end, not the means to the end.  Often, nobody really knows, what the effect of these outputs are, but as everybody uses them, they somehow feel like the right thing to do. Many times, those tactics just please the internal audiences, and more is not required. Communications tactics can live a life of their own, l’art pour l’art, keeping a whole organization busy, without anybody asking the important question: “Why?” If consultancies or agencies dare to ask the question, they are perceived as difficult, in the way of the pursuit of a bigger purpose: recognition, fame, glory. 

Communicators who want a seat at the strategy table don`t limit their roles to storytelling, amplification of content, cascading and controlling of messages. They want to be a catalyst for change, an important driver of transformation in an environment which is increasingly fluid.

Here`s my set of seven guardrails to ensure, communication is strategic. They assist us in bringing to life the vision of a company`s leadership, to make change happen and to engage all the stakeholders in a meaningful way during that journey.

  1. Spend time to define the change you want to see happen – perceptions, knowledge, attitudes, behaviors.
  2. Be honest and concrete about what you are adding to the world.
  3. Know your audience and those who influence them.
  4. Be sure, you understand the often complex and fluid context, the opportunities, and the barriers. Find creative solutions.
  5. Be crystal-clear about what you focus on and what you DON’T focus on. Budgets are limited, your stakeholders` attention span, too.
  6. Work on a relevant and galvanizing idea before you jump to tactics. Tactics are exchangeable.
  7. Plan, orchestrate and ensure, every activity is trackable and measurable.

Photo by Tom Podmore on Unsplash


Taking work in-house in times of corona? What comms teams can learn from agencies

Cornelia Kunze, Moritz Kaffsack
July 1, 2021
6 min read

Corona or no Corona: In-house communications team have been in transformation for years. Driven by shrinking budgets, the desire to operate with more flexibility and independence, and the rising expectation of communications within organizations, there has been an ongoing evaluation of the work given to external agencies to determine what parts can be moved to internal teams. Headquarter teams are put in charge not just of strategy and project management, but also more specialized functions such as planning, creative, media buying, and even the tactical execution across channels and markets. Highly qualified in-house hires are accelerating the trend. Some companies even go so far as to set up an in-house agency.

It appears that in-house communications teams have become serious competitors to agencies.

The corona crisis is creating cost pressures reminiscent of the last financial crisis. On top of that it is changing how we work together. Home office and remote work, previously frowned upon by many, is now the norm. But beyond the increased digitalization of work processes, there are other, more fundamental changes taking place. The crisis is a catalyst of a development that was already on the way: to achieve more agility when working across markets, channels and external agency relationships, communications functions are expanding and upgrading their-house teams.

This trend then poses three questions to in-house teams:

  • How can they offer best-in-class career development to attract and retain the talent needed to achieve the desired independence from external agencies?
  • How can they be effective, motivated and successful while working in a partly remote organization?
  • How can they achieve a complete focus on value-creation for the organization?

While in-house teams and agencies may be operating in very different structures, processes and organizational cultures, there are experiences and strengths that come naturally to agency teams and could hugely benefit in-house teams in this situation. Having led international agency teams, often remotely, for many years, we’ve asked ourselves what in-house teams can learn from agencies as they expand their capacities and capabilities. Here are five strengths unique to agencies that can become game changers:

  • Profit-Centre Mindset. In times of cost-cutting, any area that can’t show it’s significant value to the business gets cut first. Agencies are profit centres with revenue and margin goals – so they live by this maxime. Agency managers are trained to allocate resources not by personal preference but wherever they create the most value for the firm. All projects start with a projection of time investment for every member of the team. Time invested is tracked via (the beloved) timesheets, which are checked against plan. In case of discrepancies, corrections are made, resulting in most cases in either efficiency measures or renegotiation with the client.
  • Creativity rules the roost. At agencies creativity and innovative solutions are held in the highest regard, to the extent where they’ve become the raison d’etre for many firms in the industry. Without creativity there’s no business, no talent, no reputation, which is why great ideas and campaigns are put on such a high pedestal. There’s a strong focus on hiring the best creative talent, as well as training teams to boost creative thinking and celebrating creativity at award shows. In-house teams can also hugely benefit from creative specialists, who bring new perspectives to teams that are ‘stuck’ and push for innovative solutions. These skillsets are especially needed in times of rapid change and shouldn’t be shut down by risk minimization efforts born out of crisis management mode.
  • Adhocacy First. Pragmatism and rapid action are key to managing the current crisis – two qualities that are deeply ingrained in agency teams. Good agencies don’t reward those who stay in their box and busy themselves playing politics or covering their tracks. Whoever is present in the moment and takes decisions right then and there that positively impact the pitch, the press release, the presentation, the media interview or the social media post gets the credit. This enables a culture of helping hands, across siloes, without considering processes or hierarchies. Teams are encouraged to directly approach colleagues several levels higher or in markets halfway around the world in order to quickly get the support they need. The same goes for client interaction, where teams are trained to take the most direct path, with little regard for hierarchies. The often long and winding road of the corporate world slows teams down and creates inefficiencies. Agency teams manage entirely according to client deadlines, everything on their side is designed to be as fast and efficient as possible – which also explains the limited centralized structures in many agencies.
  • Team spirit. When team interaction is limited to emails, phone calls and videoconference, something is missing. Informal chats and daily banter are part of the glue that keeps a great team together. Agencies under strong leadership are driven by pride to belong to a great team, transcending divisions, business units and country borders. There’s a solidarity and a commitment to each other that helps carry teams through tough times. Even international teams that aren’t bound by P&L can develop an amazing culture of ‘we’, if united behind a strong vision – even if they have never met in person. This is why many communicators stay on the agency side,

despite the challenge in keeping a work-life balance and the tremendous pressure they are at times subjected to by clients. Inspired agency teams get up in the

morning because they’re part of a team that wants to do great work together. In- house teams that manage to recreate this team spirit will be motivated and in synch even when working remotely.

  • Center stage. At all times but especially in a crisis, team members that are fully invested and working hard to add value need to be recognized. The guiding principle at agencies is “lead from the front”. They excel at recognizing achievements and reward team members who push the boundaries of their comfort zone, display

courage in difficult situations and are not afraid to step into the lion’s den. In-house teams can embrace this spirit and reject their position as a support function. An

organization’s reputation is core to the business, those who manage it actively and successfully deserve the same respect and recognition as those working in sales or R&D.

The corona crisis is an extreme pressure test for in-house teams and agencies alike. Pre- corona we may have been talking about the need to transform and evolve, steadily, and without a clear timeline. Now we’re forced to evolve or perish in all areas of our professional lives. And while we never consented to this giant experiment, it presents opportunities to establish a new working culture.

Cornelia Kunze and Moritz Kaffsack are co-owners of i-sekai, a virtual boutique consultancy specialized in international communications and co-founders of fluid, a global collective of independent consultants. They have held leading roles in-house and in agencies in Europe, Asia and the US. I-sekai works with communications teams to build up in-house resources and more effectively run international communications programs.