Marketers and agencies in the healthcare sector score each other lower than those working in other categories. How can client–agency relationships be improved?

Marketers and agencies in the healthcare sector score each other lower than those working in other sectors, our latest data has found.

This could mean that both clients and agencies alike are harder to please, or that healthcare itself is simply a tough category.

There are, however, clear opportunities for both agencies and clients to improve their performances, without a cost associated. These opportunities are richer and more complex than just functional attributes – ‘doing the job’.

Here at Aprais we’ve carried out more than 23,000 client–agency evaluations over the last 20 years, which gives us a huge database of interactions between brands and agencies to draw from. The new figures were generated by comparing scores for marketers and agencies in the healthcare sector with those for marketers and agencies across ‘all categories’ in our database.

Where specifically do healthcare marketers and agencies have opportunities to improve?

Firstly, the figures show that across the board, clients in the healthcare category rate their agencies four points below the Aprais ‘all categories’ benchmark, and agencies rate their healthcare clients three points below the same benchmark.

This benchmarking is a useful exercise, although specific challenges exist for the healthcare sector that don’t affect, for example, confectionery or other FMCG, it’s helpful to be able to see sector-based trends. Regional and cultural differences can also affect the way teams score one another.

It’s not always possible to isolate specific reasons why healthcare scores are lower across the board, although we can see with all sectors that clients do tend to score their agencies a little less favourably than agencies score their clients. There are many reasons for this, and the most obvious is that agencies are unwilling to be too critical of their paying clients. 

Digging deeper into the data though, we were able to pinpoint specific areas where client organisations are lagging behind in the eyes of their agencies, and agencies in turn are not fulfilling the expectations of their clients.

We can divide these areas into functional characteristics (that measure how knowledge is effectively and readily applied) and behaviours – essentially how people act, and these behaviours are common to all job functions.

For healthcare brands, the functional area they can achieve the most improvement in – or, to put it another way, the area their agencies are least happy with – is briefing. This was far and away the most important area in which agencies said they wanted their clients to improve, well ahead even of financial management.

For agencies, the biggest opportunities for improvement are in the functional areas of media buying, and strategy, planning and analysis.

However, perhaps more interestingly, there are several areas in which agencies and clients alike can narrow the gap to the top performers through their behaviours.

What makes a top performing team?

Last year, we carried out a large-scale review of 20 years of Aprais data to shed more light on what specific characteristics make top-performing teams.

We wanted to understand how the rapidly changing business environment, not to mention the wider world, had affected day-to-day relationships between clients and agencies.

Historically the focus when it comes to measuring team performance has been on functional characteristics – how well each party does their job, and which areas can be improved.

However, when we reviewed our historical and contemporaneous data to compare top and bottom performing client-agency teams, it became instantly apparent that, whilst functional characteristics remain vital, there are also some key behavioural characteristics that contribute to building stronger relationships, which, in turn, builds stronger business.

To get a truly comprehensive understanding of client and agency relationships as they are now, it’s necessary to measure both functions, and these behaviours.

Seven behaviours we identified as most important to client-agency teams

  1. Challenge – The ability of teams to use their initiative to challenge the status quo.
  2. Accountability – How well the team sets and takes responsibility for actions and decisions.
  3. Communication – A regular dialogue to ensure timely sharing of facts and information.
  4. Goals – The clarity of the team’s objectives and how this is measured.
  5. Functional – Good, old-fashioned ‘doing the job’.
  6. Trust – Including whether the team behaves with integrity.
  7. Resilience – This became something of a buzzword during the COVID-19 pandemic. Resilience refers to the ability of a team to withstand, and bounce back from, a crisis. It’s become a new team performance standard across the board. So, perhaps unsurprisingly, according to the agencies that work for them, healthcare clients have an opportunity to improve in the area of resilience.

The main behaviour that agencies would like to see more of from their clients is challenge, and interestingly the main behaviour that clients want more of from their agencies is also challenge.

This suggests that both parties are ready to change the status quo but recognise that this is best achieved as part of a team. We could extend the definition of challenge to include a degree of risk-aversion, and certainly for a heavily regulated industry, like healthcare marketing, a willingness to take a – responsible, ethical and legal – risk may not come naturally. However, the data suggest it may be worth it. Finally, healthcare agencies can improve in the behaviours surrounding goals, which can also be related back to challenging and stretching objectives and how they are measured.

The beauty of data like this is it demonstrates unequivocally that team performances can be improved. This will come as welcome news to marketers who value relationships and know the cost and disruption caused by lengthy and expensive pitch processes. Often the relationships already established can be improved and go on to produce better work, without starting all over again from scratch with a new agency.

In fact our data also shows that clients and agencies that undergo regular evaluations consistently score one another higher over time, demonstrating that paying attention to the relationship itself, as well as the work produced and other functional measurements, will lead to improvements and increased satisfaction for both parties.