Group CEO, MullenLowe Mishra: “It’s time to reinvent agency-client partnerships in Vietnam to build towards next level brand growth”

This article is also available in Vietnamese.

The partnership between clients and agencies has long been an area of interest for researchers in a wide range of industries, especially in the fields of marketing and advertising. To get the most out of this collaboration, both sides need to know how to manage this relationship effectively. It could be considered the art of client and agency collaboration that many organizations claim to have, but few can effectively put it into practice. 

Sitting with Advertising Vietnam today is Mr. Saby Mishra - Group CEO of MullenLowe Mishra. He has 25+ years of experience in the marketing services industry across different countries and regions (India, Vietnam, SEA, etc.) with a strong focus on emerging markets. Throughout these years, Saby has straddled diverse roles – from country P&L leadership to regional Brand stewardship, including a stint in Brand Management at client side all of which have given him deep insights into marketing, clients and the brand business. 

The relationship between client and agency is compared to a “marriage” that needs trust, understanding, transparency, and mutual respect. However, many studies have shown that business relationships back in 1984 continued an average of 7.2 years then dropped to 5.3 years by 1997 (HubSpot). And, the current advertising agency-client relationship lasts an average of only 3.2 years, revealed R3, a blockchain FinTech company. Are these figures reflecting the increasing inconsistency in the agency-client relationship? Let's listen to Mr. Saby Mishra’s opinion. 

ADVN: Hi Saby. Thank you so much for joining us!
From your point of view, what are common conflicts existing between agencies and clients?

Saby Mishra: First of all, in my view agency-client relationship has to be all about collaboration, all about problem solving, all about applying creativity and innovation to resolve business problems, period. Clients need people with outside-in perspective. Clients know marketing and product. Agencies know consumers as people, local culture, media, craft and trends. Both aspects need to come together to build purposeful consumer engagement, brand love and sales. Always keep it simple.

The process of marketing communication and branding involves data, tech, creativity, strategy, and people with different skill sets and that can cause some degree of challenges. But I would not call that conflict. Because conflict means people working at cross purposes. To me agency-client relationship is more like productive tension because everyone eventually has the same goal – how to make the brand more famous, grow and win consumers. When conflict crops ups, it is usually caused by one of the following reasons or some combinations thereof:

  • The agency side:

Agencies often fail to fully grasp their clients’ business context, people, corporate culture, etc. The role of an agency is not only to take the brief and execute a campaign but also to invest time and energy in getting to know their client’s business context and add value. 

  • The client side:

Clients lack an understanding on how agency really works, especially entry level brand executives. At the end of the day, the outcome of agency is Intellectual Property (IP), which is a combination of magic and logic with the aim of driving brand choice and brand fame. Often clients do not fully understand the magic side of the IP, because it's not a 100% linear process and there are intangibles. Trust needs to be built to overcome this - that's the only way. 

  • The chemistry between agency and client:

Chemistry is a key factor in the agency-client relationship. Some agencies are happy to be led, but some like to lead. Similarly, some clients need an agency to follow what they want, but others want to hire agencies that can challenge them and show them a new way. 

Furthermore, the remuneration that agency receives often does not match the contribution agency is bringing to the client business. This is also a factor why smart and committed agencies will veer towards client companies who value their agency team as an asset, less as an ad hoc vendor. 

ADVN: You have worked on both agency and client sides. What did it help you in terms of understanding the very center of the agency-client relationship?

Saby Mishra: Most of my 25+ year career has been at two great agencies JWT and Lowe Lintas, across 4-5 countries, leading offices, global projects, hundreds of pitches, driving teams, growth, working with a fantastic bunch of clients and colleagues. I was also fortunate to have an opportunity to go to the client side at Gillette company, where I spent time in brand management, including a stint in field sales.

Stepping out from the beautifully hectic agency world, I initially freaked out coming into a very structured, serious, systematic client world but later enjoyed it and learnt a lot. I worked with an incredibly talented bunch of people at the client organization. You realize that advertising is important but still only a part of the more extensive set of responsibilities of a Marketing Manager or Brand Manager. There’s so much more brand teams do and are responsible for – which we often fail to see from the agency side of the table.

From all that, I learned the importance of taking a broader view to understand what really matters to the client, take a holistic perspective keeping in mind the category, quarterly targets, growth, business impact, competition, technology, globalization, localization, efficiency etc. As an agency leader , I always try to bring that perspective to my people and to the work we do for our clients. 

The other important thing I learned is to listen well. Life gets hugely sorted when you know how to listen well. Not simply to blindly follow what’s being asked but to understand what’s really going on, what the client’s business is facing and thus what solutions may be needed. We agency people tend to get too obsessed with communication too soon and miss the big picture. This is a real issue in our industry. 

Beyond the client-provider collaboration, the connection between agency and client should be considered as a team. Therefore, building mutual respect and trust is essential for both parties to show they are striving to meet expectations. 

ADVN: What do you think about the importance of mutual respect and trust in the collaboration between agencies and clients? 

Saby Mishra: Our industry is all about people despite the huge amount of tech we are using now, so mutual respect and trust is absolutely critical. People do their job better when they feel empowered. Agencies are client’s growth partner in building IP, not a vendor selling a commodity.

According to Saby, there are some tips to strengthen agencies and clients’ roles in creating this mutual trust:

With regard to client role:
Encourage your agency team to excel, make them understand the business of your business
Give constructive feedback - continuously 
Celebrate winning work together
Remunerate in a fair way which incentivizes the agency to add real value as opposed to simply delivering the job as lowest cost bidder! 

With regard to agency role:
Hire smart people 
Bring real passion to work 
Be consumer obsessed (culture, data, insight, tech)
Understand the big picture 
Understand your client business really well 

Recognizing the value of collaboration, many Vietnamese organizations have been effectively put into practice and wield it correctly, on both agency and client sides. With experience in living and working in advertising and servicing clients across 4-5 countries, Saby highlighted the differences and advantages of the Vietnamese market in developing agency-client relationships.

ADVN: Do you find any differences and commonalities between the above collaborations in Vietnam and other markets?

Saby Mishra: Running a regional business, from China, Turkey to Southeast Asia, I feel that cultural differences are not limited to the agency world but exist across all industry sectors. Cultural differences within an ad industry is more about client organization culture. For example, there are differences between multinational clients (MNCs) and local clients. MNCs tend to be more rigorous, more structured whereas local clients can be more flexible, more open to experimentation and often a lot more ambitious. 

ADVN: What is the most dramatic difference you witness in the last couple of years in the way agencies and clients are working together?

Saby Mishra: There is definitely more agility. With the development of tech, agencies are no longer coming and saying, “Okay, let's do a campaign”. Instead they are coming up with solutions and that often includes data or ecommerce or design thinking, or retail or experiential - more than just communication as it used to be 7-10 years back. 

Also, I feel short-termism is rising. This is much more short-term work, short-term thinking, and more work feels tactical and less strategic than before and that’s because the brand team is also under pressure to meet sales targets internally. But a good agency must not lose sight of strategic clarity and should speak its mind. At the end of the day, without clarity both client and agency basically are handling brand investment ‘accidentally’ - not good for any one. This belief is at the core of MullenLowe Mishra philosophy – first have clarity and then punch hard, not the other way round! 

ADVN: What do you think about the development of the advertising industry in Vietnam?

Saby Mishra: I feel Vietnamese advertising needs to find its own unique voice. It need not and should not follow standards of western advertising, nor Thai nor Japanese. It must have its own unique style and be totally comfortable with it. We are seeing some good examples but frankly more needs to be done and smart clients have to nurture this experimentation. Second, I would also like to see more Vietnamese young people come to this industry because they genuinely love it and are prepared to give it their best. If you are not built and driven that way sorry this industry is not for you. This is a tough industry but also super rewarding if you are smart, curious, resilient, you are conceptual and you love dealing with people. 

ADVN: The COVID-19 pandemic has posed a lot of challenges in all industries, including the advertising field. Take a look on the bright side. What are new opportunities coming up amidst this rigorous situation that agencies and clients are able to seize?

Saby Mishra: The COVID-19 global pandemic is impacting consumer behaviour in several ways including having an impact on the economy. Advertising can play a huge role esp, in times like this to spur consumer demand and thus can be a key catalyst to boost a slowing economy. Consumer behaviors are getting impacted – more online shopping is one such change. It's booming. Several other big shifts are happening, all around. I feel smart, agile agency models are pivoting already. This can be difficult for large network agencies with multiple internal agencies of all shapes and sizes and complex country management structure, whereas relatively nimble structures like ours can move quicker, stay closer to clients and do work that’s closer to ground reality. 

So this current disruption means a huge opportunity for hybrid and guerilla agency models like MullenLowe Mishra. 

ADVN: If you describe the collaboration between agencies and clients by one word, what is it going to be?

Saby Mishra: I think the agency is a Force Multiplier. Both agency and client sides should consider it like that. Then, how to make it happen? Clients should empower their agency, and the agency also delivers it.

ADVN: Saby, thanks a lot.

Group CEO, MullenLowe Mishra: “It’s time to reinvent agency-client partnerships in Vietnam to build towards next level brand growth”

Ngọc Anh

Ngọc Anh

Content Leader | Advertising Vietnam

06 Thg 05 2021


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