Why Clients and Agencies Don't See Eye‐to‐Eye on Agency Proactivity

Ignition Consulting Group recently conducted a study among the 4A's, ANA and World Federation of Advertisers on how clients define value in the Agency ‐ Client relationship. This research offered a fascinating perspective on what clients most want from their agencies. Proactivity was identified as one of the top 10 value drivers — but it was the lowest ranked agency attribute in the study. In other words, clients highly value proactivity but feel that for the most part, agencies don't deliver.

As someone who has been conducting agency evaluations for nearly 10 years, this is not a surprise. The subject of proactivity pops up in most evaluations and agencies often score poorly in this area. We have seen agencies interpret proactivity as everything from developing new products to creating new logos. If clients are not looking for proactivity of this magnitude, these initiatives can be viewed as expensive time wasters. This understandably leaves agencies deflated and confused, and stuck in a "damned if we do, damned if we don't" conundrum in regard to proactivity.

The key learning is that clients and agencies often have very different definitions as to what constitutes proactive behavior. There is significant complexity underlying the concept of proactivity so it is in your best interest to come to a mutual understanding about this important value driver.

From a broad perspective, proactivity is generally defined as doing things without being asked, i.e., initiating change rather than reacting to events. Agencies often interpret low proactivity scores as a thinly veiled request for more surprise and delight — i.e., the development of projects in black‐box secrecy delivered with a showbiz flourish. Agencies tend to overemphasize the surprise and secrecy aspects of proactivity while clients think more along the lines of initiative — having agencies do a better job anticipating their needs and not functioning as an order‐taker. Clients don't always like surprises — particularly irrelevant surprises which they have funded.

Realizing the high value clients place on proactive behavior and that the definition of proactivity is in the mind of the beholder, I recommend that you practice relevant proactivity (if you are not doing so already). Have a conversation with your client in which you mutually create a clear framework for proactivity and the expectations they have for your agency. Importantly, this is not about requesting permission to be proactive. It means having a clear definition of the borders of proactivity and having free rein to execute within those guard rails.

Take these simple steps and I guarantee your proactivity ratings will increase in your next agency assessment.