Every client is unique – particularly when it comes to the diverse sector of retail eCommerce – and agencies must bear this in mind if they want to work smoothly with their clients and ensure successful outcomes. This all begins with building a deep understanding of the client, covered in the first part of this two-part article. But where should you go from here? Let’s take a look at how you can work with retail eCommerce clients to forge an effective strategy and demonstrate true value as an agency.

Create a plan

Without a plan you end up with reactive, tactical activity, which rarely delivers on wider objectives. A plan doesn’t have to be rigid and slavishly followed; the best plans will take a current situation into account but offer the capability to flex as new data emerges. And when it comes to creating the plan, it must be a collaborative effort. 

The plan can be prepared by the agency but it’s imperative that this is an iterative process with input from stakeholders across the business. And without completion of the previous points covered in part one of this article, any strategy should be viewed with scepticism. Any client strategy, no matter the size or scope of the brand, should be tailored to include both your learnings from experience, as well as the distinct challenges of the brand in question.

For complex retail eCommerce environments, the need to get this just right can’t be overstated. These organisations all have numerous workstreams running concurrently, all with their own priorities, different teams, different resources, as well as distinct know-how and skill levels. A plan that worked well for Client A may be impossible for Client B, even if you’re tasked with delivering similar outputs and outcomes.  

Without intimate knowledge of the brand’s structure, as well as the wants and needs of the organisation and their customers, no agency can possibly create a plan to achieve success. The plan should dovetail with the desires of the company as well as what is actually possible for the specific circumstances the brand has. Too often, projects are doomed to failure because unique challenges or blockers are overlooked or deliberately ignored. 

Instead, these challenges should be identified, dragged out into the light, and either reckoned with or accepted. The plan can then be adapted to allow for blockers to be removed – which might extend the timeline – or alternatively, expectations can be changed in light of the ‘immovable object’. Taking this approach means that everybody – agency and client too – proceeds with eyes wide open.

Make a difference

Perhaps the most important part of working with any client, large or small, is dealing with complacency. The moment you become comfortable with the day-to-day churn of activity is the moment rot can set in for an agency-client relationship. Everything will seem fine for a time, but then the client will become unhappy with the mediocre performance, the lack of insight and direction, the missed opportunities. Agencies should always be active, looking for new ideas, ways to improve, and even bringing projects to the client they had no idea they needed. 

Here’s a sign you’re getting too comfortable. Someone in the agency suggests an idea or course of action that gets knocked down before it even goes to the client, because “it’s a great idea, but they’d never go for it”. At this point, some introspection is needed. I’m not saying you should be suggesting something that’s wrong for the client. Rather, just because something could be difficult or different, and might require some pushing to make it a reality,  doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bring it to the client for consideration. 

The worst thing an agency can do is keep quiet and get comfortable completing the day-to-day work. This is what separates thought leaders from do-ers. As more and more companies take more marketing roles in-house, and agency staff become lured over with the (sometimes) slower pace and shorter working hours, it’s more important than ever for agencies to demonstrate their expertise and show the value they bring. 

If there is something urgent – or something you are passionate about – speak up. Be honest, back yourself up with reasons and data, and get that message out there. Brands hire agencies for their expertise, not their meekness (or at least they should). This may require a change in direction for some agencies who are more comfortable being fed work and not challenging the client, but this is vital to make a difference in a company, and will have a positive impact on how the agency is viewed in the long-term.

An agency should always be looking for improvements to be made. With the challenges of a shrinking market, developments in technology, along with factors outside of anyone’s control like the current COVID-19 pandemic, large retailers are like a shark: stop moving and they risk death. For a stark and very current example, consider that Primark, having no online capabilities, went from £650million in sales to zero in a month

Other retailers are similarly struggling or failing as the new strain on their websites has shown the weaknesses in their current digital set-ups, which have been allowed to stand because until now their sites have been secondary pillars behind their physical outlets.

An agency should be providing that piece of support no one else can offer. This shouldn’t be carrying out tasks, but giving advice, recommendations, and input on things that can move the needle. 

We’ve found that using our skills to train those employed by our clients empowers them to complete many of the simpler day-to-day tasks. Similarly, we help them to adopt new ways of working, technologies, or develop partnerships with other third parties. This might sound like we’re doing ourselves out of a job, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. Instead, it frees up people client-side to focus on bigger problems, and this in turn is where they come to us for support and consultancy, knowing their internal team can then – with guidance and support – execute on our collaborative strategic thinking and planning. Clients then see you as problem-solvers and trusted partners, not just a workshop to which they can outsource fiddly tasks. 

Your client needs you to be the expert, not to be there to agree to a plan which is suboptimal or, at worst, simply won’t work. Get a great understanding of the brand, demonstrate that with a killer plan, and be the expert they need.