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The Drum Agency Business Awards are designed to reward those agencies who are demonstrating that they’re the best in the field not just at winning work, but at setting a gold standard for working practices. Whether that’s blazing a trail for the rights of their workers, setting standards for ethical behaviour and transparency, or developing an internal culture that promotes wellbeing over wealth, these awards recognise that there’s more to agency life than winning clients.

Ahead of the upcoming Agency Business Awards UK 2019, we sat down with our judging panel in order to discuss one of the most pressing issues facing agencies. At a time where socially conscious young people are entering the industry, there is a need to promote an agency’s values to attract top talent. At the same time, however, sometimes those values can fly in the face of those held by potential clients, risking a dent in the P&L. How, then, are agencies supposed to square that circle and communicate values without alienating clients?

Richard Barrett, co-founder of Initials, set out the stakes by relating the story of a newly-formed agency that has baked a value of social responsibility directly into its structure, giving every employee an equal say in which clients they would work with: “What was interesting about it was that he had set up five or six [agencies] in a genuine collective, with a mandate that everybody has a say in terms of the projects and the clients they were going to be working for. He felt fundamentally it was going to pave the way for the very best talent in the business moving forward.”

He noted that such a mandate such would only really work for smaller agencies. However laudable the approach, Barrett noted that key questions remain about whether – in the crunch – a smaller agency can ever afford to refuse a potential client on the basis of a clash of values.

Beth Pope, founder and brand partner at Firehouse, believes that promoting internal values does have an uplift on P&L however, by decreasing staff attrition: “The thing from an internal perspective is that people increasingly buy into culture; staff attrition is something that costs a fortune so if it helps reflect the values of the team, keeps them longer, keeps them happier, it's an internal-facing thing.”

Beyond reducing costs, Reflect’s Becky Sims pointed out that when agency values coincide with that of potential partners, however, there is a positive impact on the business: “At Reflect Digital we do a four day working week. When we brought that in last year we got a lot of press around it, and we won clients off the back of it because they loved the culture and they love that we put our staff first.”

So there is a risk-reward aspect for agencies looking to promote their values. On one hand, it can reduce costs and arguably make an agency more attractive, while on the other it potentially puts agencies in the difficult position of having to balance financial needs against the cost of betraying those internal beliefs.

Practical values

The group was keen to discuss practical measures for how internal values can be expressed without alienating or - arguably worse - boring potential clients. There was much debate as to when in the relationship, if ever, those values should be expressed and shared with a partner organisation.

Katie Traxton, having sat on both sides of the table between agencies and clients, believes that often clients aren’t as interested in a pitching agency’s values as the agency might expect: “Until I went agency-side three years ago I was always client-side. I sat on the other side of the pitching table and, from only my experience, and I'm sure this isn't a blanket rule, no-one cared. People care insofar as you have a unique proposition then that would mean you would stand out and they could go to purchasing or procurement, it was a reason to put you on the roster.”

Instead, she argues, values are best demonstrated over the course of a relationship.

Graham Kent echoed the idea that values must be something that are genuine and must be lived rather than parroted during a pitch: “Values are not a marketing tool. We could put them on a wall and that's very useful when you're trying to articulate it, but really you need to weave it into everything. These values are measured in years and we do have a very good retention rate.”

Value clash

The table was keen to note that, while there may be slight differences in values, for the most part, agencies and clients in the same territory aren’t so very different when it comes to their beliefs.

Shaun Meadows, partner at SI Partners, said: “Values are rarely going to be so different between agencies and clients. We [all] have values of friendship, A-grade, entrepreneurial spirit.”

And the implication is that, as brands begin to cater to ever more socially conscious audiences and consumers, they will look to agencies to explain those values. Niki Hunter, managing director of Splendid Communications, said: “We have a really large client who came to all their agencies and said 'what should we be aware of?' It's a shift that's happening, but I think by showing them the benchmarking of what others were doing and showing them the broader picture they were more open to listening to it as well.”

In fact, many of the assembled guests argued that, if anything, it is agencies who will be required to demonstrate their values live up to those of clients in the near future. Chris Kemp, chief executive officer of Ingenuity, said that now is exactly the time agencies need to take the lead: “Candidly my suspicion is that every boardroom is now becoming increasingly socially responsible. I don't think the agencies are that far in front. Now's a really good time to show off our viewpoint.”

Mike Murphy, a non-exec director of several PR agencies, agreed, noting that: “It's not a trickle down for me, at the moment, it's a flood. I think unless agencies keep up with the changes that are happening in the C Suite I think we're going to be at a disadvantage.”

Pope, too, believes that client priorities are shifting and that depending on the client they may already be on the journey to prioritising an agency’s values as the relationship begins: “I think it depends on which type of client you're talking about. Unilever, P&G, Mars, all have very value-driven mantras and expect that of their agencies too. Procurement is already on the journey.”

Ultimately, then, it might be that the gulf between agency values and clients is not so great, and maybe a central pillar of any relationship over the next few years. Just as audiences recognise when a brand is cynically espousing values it does not actually hold, clients will sniff out agencies that are not genuinely living their values too.

The Agency Business Awards UK ceremony will take place 26 November 2019 at The Marriot Grosvenor Square Hotel, London. Tickets for the event can be purchased now

Partners of the awards are Connor Broadley, Moore, Winmo and Riskbox.