How Agencies Sell Risk to Brands

This is the final story of a four-part series looking at brands that are pushing the envelope and taking risks in digital. It is brought  to you by Vizu, A Nielsen Company, the leader in measuring digital brand advertising effectiveness.


Agencies love to talk about creating “innovative” digital work, but can only ever be as progressive as their clients will let them. Their ability to convince brands to take risks and to try new things is becoming increasingly important to their businesses, but it’s easier said than done.

Most brands claim they like trying new things and “driving innovation” with their marketing, but when the rubber hits the road, they have a habit of falling back on what they know and what they’re comfortable with. As a result, agencies are regularly asked by clients to formulate concepts for digital executions, platforms and products that are never brought to fruition. Despite what they say, clients would rather play it safe than take a potentially expensive risk with an unproven digital idea.

“It’s not hard to sell TV commercials or print, or things that brands understand,” said Steve Babcock, executive creative director at Evolution Bureau. “But brands see digital differently for some reason. There’s sometimes this ‘I don’t know what I’m getting out of this’ mentality.”

But to become the “innovation partners” many aspire to be, agencies need to get better at selling their more progressive ideas. Yes, it’s scary for clients outside their comfort zones. And no, agencies don’t always know exactly what they’re doing. But perhaps agencies need to do a better job of convincing their clients to take leaps of faith.

According to Babcock, one of the best ways agencies can do that is simply by being more transparent.

“Honesty is a great principle to have. Nobody would break new ground if there weren’t risks taken, so it’s about holding hands and jumping together. Then, when you reach those ‘oh crap’ moments, you can work around them together,” he said. “There’s too much dog-and-pony show in this industry. Unless you know it all, don’t pretend you do.”

That sentiment was echoed by Rokkan svp of client services, Zach Newcomb. The key to selling more content-focused programs is to build trust around the concepts with clients, he said. “The key is to start small and to prove your worth around this stuff, and then you can get clients to start taking bigger risks with less quantifiable investments.”

That might help clients feel more comfortable with their agency relationship, but it does little to answer the “what am I getting out of this” question that marketers are perpetually attempting to answer. Digital programs can often prove hard to measure, especially if they’re using new technologies or platforms or genuinely are “industry firsts.” TV advertising is relatively easy to benchmark, for example, and most major advertisers have been buying it for decades. But the majority of marketers still don’t really understand the effects channels like social media really have on sales and other hard business metrics. As a result, many find it difficult to justify investment, not least because they’ll have to explain that decision to their superiors.

When it comes to selling work in unproven channels, it’s, therefore, about clearly setting client expectations, Babcock added. Though certain pieces of work might never be traced directly to revenue, agencies should at least do a better job of communicating exactly what a campaign is designed to do, and why. A large part of that expectation setting is education. Many agencies expect their clients to simply have faith in their ideas, but in reality, a progressive idea is only half the battle. For agencies, the second half is figuring out a way to effectively explain to a client why that idea has value. Without the latter, the former is moot.

As well as doing a better job of explaining their ideas to clients, it’s also becoming increasingly important to help those clients justify their decisions to those further up the food chain in their respective organizations. Newcomb said Rokkan has found value in creating the messaging that clients use to pitch an idea to superiors.

“We want to help clients tell those stories internally in a way that’ll build trust down the road,” said Newcomb, “It helps us, but also the careers of the people there, and the next thing you know it allows us to do some of the more experimental stuff.”

But even that approach is fundamentally about building trust, Newcomb added. It’s about building the agency’s reputation with clients to the point that senior-level executives recognize the brand and feel comfortable signing off on work they might not have otherwise. It’s a slow-burner.

Babcock agreed. “Agencies that are smart present to clients in a way that minimizes risk on their end, ” he said. “Once you start getting the small wins, then you can go after the bigger money.”

Image via Shutterstock 

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