Trust Issues in the Marketing Industry: A Road Map to Rebuilding Relationships

Marketers and agencies don’t trust each other – CEOs don’t trust marketers and customers don’t trust advertisements. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that is hard to break. Marketing works best when the agency & client can trust each other, leading to results that will both impress the CEO and break down barriers of cynical consumers. If agencies and clients can’t trust each other, though, the results are poor, no one is impressed and no barriers are broken down, leading to more distrust.

In sum, the entire marketing and advertising industry is tainted by an aura of distrust. Take these statistics as proof:

  • 80% of CEOs do not trust marketers, with 73% believing “marketers lack business credibility and the ability to generate sufficient growth.” Fournaise Marketing Group
  • 84% of millennials do not like or trust traditional advertising. The McCarthy Group
  • Only 47% of consumers trust ads served in search engine results. The Nielson Company
  • Only 3% of respondents said sponsored posts on social media encouraged them to try a new product. Lab 42

In this shark tank of critics looking to write marketing off all together, the most important relationship for success and support is that of the marketing agency and the client. So you think they’d stick together, right? Wrong.

As I addressed last week in my blog ‘Is Your Agency Holding You Hostage’, 41% of AdAge Readers consider “Improving Trust Between Marketers & Agencies” the most important marketing & advertising issue in 2016 according to their most recent survey.

Importance of Trust – And Why We Don’t Have It

Trust is all about communication. It’s ironic, then, that in the business of communications (aka, marketing) no one seems to be having enough of it. What’s similarly ironic is that everyone seems to be on the same page about the importance of trust in marketing. As I also talked about in my blog last week, ad agency RPA’s revolutionary 2014 study of marketing agencies and clients found that both 98% of agencies surveyed as well as 98% of clients surveyed believed that trusting your agency was foundational to good advertising.

So if we all agree, where is this problematic behavior coming from? This is my hypothesis based on both research and personal experience:

  • Agencies and clients ultimately have different goals
  • Agencies and clients have different levels of risk – or have risk in different areas
  • There is money involved (it’s not called the root of all evil for no reason!)

Despite good intentions, agencies and marketers will always have a transactional relationship—to some degree, at least—and they will always be on different sides of a divide. That doesn’t mean all hope is lost, though. After doing some research, I collected what I found to be the most pervasive areas of distrust between agencies and marketers, which you’ll find below.

Common Culprits of Marketing Misgivings

Each of these prevalent miscommunications between agencies and clients is broken down from the perspective of each party, showing the root–and resulting mishaps–of the issue.

  • Progressive Marketing Tactics – When is too much and how to know if they’re working?
    • Agency side: Agencies believe their value lies in pushing the envelope and keeping their clients ahead of the game.
    • Client side: Clients, or their higher-ups, often want to stick to what they know works and what they feel will be most impactful.
    • Result: Agencies typically come off as only caring about selling new work or jumping on bandwagons while clients are perceived as outdated and less knowledgeable about marketing. For example, one agency executive in the RPA study said of his clients “[They’re] most always [their] own problem. [They] can’t get out of [their] way enough to let the Agency do good, business-changing work.”
  • Vendor vs. Partner Relationships – When quid pro quo doesn’t work.
    • Agency side: Agencies are worried they will be dropped at any second because they are considered a means to an end when they’re viewed as a vendor.
    • Client side: Clients either do feel like their agencies are vendors or do not properly express that they view their agencies as partners.
    • Result: Agencies constantly try to increase their value through newer, more transformational ideas, making clients feel they are just trying to sell more work and squelching growth for both parties. Interestingly, 77% of clients saying they view their agencies as partners rather than vendors while only 54% of agency executives believe this. RPA.
  • Open Communication – Is it taking place and is it believable?
    • Agency side: Agencies bring data to the table to back up their suggestions and communications, but it is either not what the client is looking for or is not easily understood.
    • Client side: Clients typically fall back into corporate double speak – or agencies think that they are – which hinders clear communication.
    • Result: Whether each side is speaking candidly or not, it is assumed they’re not. Only 36% of agency contacts believe their clients are speaking truthfully while 88% of clients say they are speaking truthfully. RPA.
  • Creativity – What does it mean to agencies and how does that differ from clients?
    • Agency side: Agencies know the power of creative and have creative professionals to leverage, so they push for more innovative uses of creative in marketing.
    • Client side: Again, clients believe agencies that are too focused on creative work are more concerned with having ‘cool ideas’ than they are with making business impact.
    • Result: Clients look at an overemphasis on creative work as a boondoggle. Not only did 2/3 of agencies and clients agree they don’t agree on the meaning of creativity, only 26% of clients believed that creative work could move their business. RPA
  • Understanding the Business – Are agencies putting in the effort to accomplish business impact?
    • Agency side: Agencies are coming from a marketing perspective and typically focus on the performance of their specific marketing campaigns and initiatives.
    • Client side: Clients have the rest of the C-suite bearing down on them with questions about sales, revenue, and business growth.
    • Result: Agencies are perceived as just marketing machines, with no insight into business operations or impact. While 90% of agencies felt they truly understood their clients’ business, only 65% of clients felt the same way. RPA.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Like any relationship, there will always be gray areas. It’s essential to shed light where there are areas of possible improvement, though. While there is a lot that agencies can do to step up their game, trust is a two-way street. So, use this guide to the pitfalls and landmines of agency-client relationships to identify where your problems lie and how you should move forward effectively. Or, use it to identify that improvement is not possible with your current agency. After all, knowing is half the battle.

Ultimately, recognizing that the better your relationship is with your agency the more your higher ups and end customers will trust you should be a pretty big incentive to do some relationship soul searching.


Did you like this post? Let us know why (or why not) in the comments. In the meantime, check out our blog Why Lead Quotas (and Other Vanity Metrics) are Hindering Your Long Term Growth to learn about the impactful metrics your agency should be reporting on.

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