Oxigen Communications Founder, LJ Swart, provides insight into PR, brand communications and sponsorship management trends in 2017, and explains why understanding grass roots level client needs is set to become a game changing benchmark in the year ahead.
Strategies for Client Retention
Attracting new clients with colourful pitches has never been difficult for South African agencies as companies in all sectors have been upping their marketing game in order to be more competitive amid economic uncertainty. However, according to Swart, retaining clients is where things get tricky for most agencies. “Once the honeymoon period is over, many agencies can start to develop a ‘problem child’ relationship with their client making delivery and client service a nightmare for account managers and clients alike. This is mostly due to a lack of consistency from both client and agency in delivering on what has been promised, overcomplicating simple processes, and a lack of understanding of what your clients really need on a basic level.”
According to Swart, revisiting strategy on a monthly basis is imperative to maintaining consistency in input from client and output from the agency. “You have to create communication channels that work for both you as the agency and for the client. For instance, some clients might prefer a more informal platform such as Whatsapp, while some want to communicate only through email. This aside, one thing that we see happening more and more is that traditional business hours have gone out of the window. Agencies and account managers need be flexible on this.”
Time to re-focus on the bottom line: Theirs, not yours
The bottom line, says Swart will always remain your client’s number one concern. And although this may sound clichéd, Swart advises that as an agency, you have to ask yourself the question: “Am I really concerned about that?” After all, having a hugely increased social media or online following for your client thanks to your carefully crafted digital campaign, means little in the long run if this does not affect their sales. “In the year ahead I see companies seeking firms that have a more simplistic, no nonsense approach to PR, branding and online marketing. Companies are cash strapped and are looking for an affordable but efficient solution that can be measured in real time with a direct link to increased sales or a tangible and measurable increase in awareness of their brand.”
This is a major need that Swart says he found not being addressed – although agency reports would have you believe otherwise – simply whether your marketing efforts are making a tangible difference to your client’s business. Too often, agencies want to hide behind publicity value. “Do brand awareness and AVE play a role? Yes, massively. But gone are the days where AVE is all that matters. We must understand client strategy and upping marketing strategy objectives from the word go. Sometimes this may include engaging with suppliers or talking to client suppliers, or it is about brand awareness, credibility or community upliftment – no two strategies are the same. But at the end of the day, what agencies need to strive for is to get the client as close as we can to sales conversion. Clients need to see that this is a partnership and both agencies and clients must take responsibility to drive the bottom line.”
The Resurgence of Sponsorships
This says Swart, is one of the reasons why Oxigen feels so strongly about sponsorships. Sponsorships are not necessarily just tied to massive sport and entertainment budgets. They can include mining related or CSI related community initiatives. Messaging today has to be emotive, engaging, and must tell a story. The easiest and most efficient way of doing this is by getting your company involved in important projects – whether they are on a huge national scale or just enough to influence a small NGO operating near your business. “It’s about tying your business to the bigger picture. A sponsorship budget takes your brand far further than generic advertising. For example, spending R150 000 as a sponsor for Mining Indaba versus spending that same budget on print advertising will take you much further as you are able to engage directly with industry decision makers and create a memorable experience around your brand for potential clients.”
Stop, listen & really understand what your client needs…
Understanding what your client needs will determine whether they enter a sponsorship space straight away or maybe three or four years down the line. “You have to see your long term strategy like a growing child. We have to crawl before we can walk,” Swart advises. “You have to find the sweet spot between what will get you the best results and what your client can handle. You can’t take a client who might be dipping their toes into PR or sponsorships for the first time and expect them to go at 200km an hour. Hold their hand and let gradual growth and consistency become the hallmarks of your strategy.”
Swart argues that agencies would do well to remember that rather than forcing a client into unknown territory, guide them on the back of a concise strategy that you can prove works for their particular market. “Forget quick fixes and the ‘spray and pray’ approach. In a highly competitive, cash strapped market; we need to be specific in order to produce tangible results.”
Tailoring the Approach According to Client’s Needs
This says Swart, will start to play possibly the biggest role in client retention. In the past year, Oxigen has signed a string of new clients under both their sponsorship management brand communications divisions, but it is their approach, Swart explains that has allowed them to retain these clients heading into 2017 – some signing on for fifth or sixth term with the agency. “Our approach in dealing with clients is based on a thorough understanding of what privately owned companies need coupled with industry knowledge.”
Attracting niche clients, for instance from the mining industry – one of the sectors in which Oxigen excels – is dependent on having the right knowledge of the industry. “Our strength in the mining and industrial sectors comes from having a high-level understanding of the industry landscape coupled with detailed knowledge necessary for writing highly technical press releases and thought leadership articles for our clients. This does not happen overnight though and it is unrealistic to expect the average copywriter to have this type of knowledge unless they are working at a specialist agency or within a specialist division. And so, with the current industry climate, I think we will see companies in niche markets sign on with agencies who have a unique understanding of the industry in which they operate, to avoid feeling as though they have to generate most of the content themselves.” says Swart.
Time to Cut the Noise
Swart says that one theme he sees emerging going into 2017 is ‘cut the noise’. “As a marketing agency we have spoken less and listened more over the past year, crafting strategies accordingly. Clients know their business and they know what they need to communicate to their target audience. Without forcing them to, we have let them guide us. It is our job to tell them how to say it, not to say it for them. Your clients know what they want to say and it is not our job to tell them what this is. Our role is advising the best platforms for getting this message across. Don’t smother your clients with overkill on jargon and trying to impress them. Let’s lose the smoke and mirrors approach with less talk and more listening.”
“More and more we see clients seeking an agency who truly believe in what they do and are passionate about their clients. Paying lip service to this won’t be enough anymore and it is clear from the get go whether you truly care about making a difference to a new client or are simply using them to bolster a portfolio of clients who are given generic marketing strategies.”
Multitasking is now the Name of the Game
Swart feels that the days of having five or six agencies working on one account are over. “We do not believe that brands need different service providers to handle their PR, online branding, social media and advertising anymore. More and more this is being handled in-house by a single agency where the emphasis is more on understanding the content that needs to be generated and the messaging behind it. If your content is on point, you can create a viral Facebook post without needing to have a large social media team working on one client’s account.” Swart goes on to say that this points to one of the biggest upcoming trends in the industry which is account managers who, without becoming ‘jacks of all trades’ have at least a basic understanding of social media platforms, SEO, Google Adwords, email marketing, content marketing and viral content platforms along with their traditional roles around having good relationships with the media.
In taking the above approach and by creating specialist divisions, Swart says that Oxigen has become more than just an external service provider but rather an extension of each client’s marketing department. “Ultimately to stay ahead, over the next year, agencies will need to take the ‘it’s not me, it’s you approach’. It’s all about the client and understanding their business. That’s the only way that we can help them grow. It’s not about us. Stop trying to impress clients and focus on giving them what they need.”