Agencies should place greater stock on retaining clients – by Wavemaker’s James Wilde

Retaining a client can be more difficult and rewarding than winning a new account, especially during challenging times. At Wavemaker, here is what we have found works to win retention pitches, writes James Wilde

By James Wilde, head of new business, Wavemaker

Last year was healthy for Wavemaker’s growth team, reflected by the fact we recently ranked highly in Campaign‘s UK new-business league. While we have been celebrating the new wins with gusto, we are also extremely proud of the clients that we have retained.

After all, retaining a client in a pitch situation isn’t an easy task. In late 2021, I joined Wavemaker’s growth team, at a time when we’d recently lost a number of high-profile accounts, including Compare the market, British Airways and Kingfisher (B&Q, Screwfix). While we also welcomed some new clients into our portfolio, losing three of Wavemaker’s UK clients in one year really took its toll on morale.

The old industry adage is that it’s “twice as hard to retain as it is to win”. Statistically, this doesn’t really make sense but, from experience, you are probably twice as likely to lose an incumbent pitch as you are to win it. If we assume that, in simple terms, you’d be unlikely to not get into the final presentation round as an incumbent, these rounds are usually fought out between three agencies, perhaps a maximum of four. Therefore, your chances aren’t great.

Against these odds, Wavemaker has had a great year retaining (and in some cases growing our remit across) client accounts. In fact, 92 per cent of the incumbent accounts we’ve repitched for, we’ve kept. This is a reflection of the team we have in place across the agency from London to Manchester.

It would be fair to say that no two pitches are the same. However, on reflection, there have been some consistent behaviours that have served us well throughout the past 12 months.

In turbulent economic times clients want stability

I’d be lying if I said that the 2022 economic whirlwind hasn’t played a part in our success. We’ve been supporting all of our clients through a tricky year, particularly around media inflation and the effects of the cost-of-living crisis.

By doubling down on the key issues for clients, as opposed to perhaps the sexier and more innovative pitch-appropriate approaches, we’ve further solidified our position as a serious business partner. One that is stable while so many other things are in turmoil.

Too many new people can be a bad thing

There is a real temptation to change the team as soon as the pitch gets called, but I believe it is risky to throw the baby out with the bath water.

If you completely revamp the team, then you’re removing your competitive advantage and, in some cases, removing the client’s trusted advisor.

By all means bring in new ideas and new people, but try to keep your key client leads the same as they are currently. New ideas from the mouths of trusted client leads is a perfect combination.

Don’t be aloof

As an incumbent, it is important to prove to your client that you remain their best partner for future growth. Don’t be afraid to introduce additional talent from across the agency.

There should never be a concern that they’ll see right through it if a client suddenly starts getting more attention; you are showcasing your wider skillset. If you don’t supercharge your agency’s love and show how much you care, it’s easy for the client to think: “They just didn’t want it enough.”

Celebrate your existing work

It’s too easy in a pitch period for the “softer” elements to fall by the wayside. Writing that award entry or creating that showreel for a post-campaign analysis is more important than ever. And don’t be afraid to showcase these elements during the pitch process too.

It’s highly likely some of the senior stakeholders in the process won’t have seen everything you’ve done for them as a client, so a bit of repetition is positive. It’s highly likely some of the senior stakeholders in the process won’t have seen everything you’ve done for them as a client, so a bit of repetition is positive.

Momentum is everything

Many of our account retentions this year have been from government pitches. Our fantastic, dedicated government team has been busy across the year and hasn’t lost a client.

Undoubtedly this momentum has permeated across different government departments to increase our priming stage bias. But most importantly, we’re created a winning team that was indefatigable across the year. And that got people in the agency excited, with 34 Wavemakers pitching for the first time this year.

Recognise the win more than if it was a new client

With a new win, it’s exciting, the story lands in Campaign and you go and have a glass of fizz. With retentions, however, because it’s more of a relief, the day after the result it’s just business as usual on the account.

As a result there can be a tendency to not celebrate in the same way. Whereas, in fact, retentions should be celebrated even harder, and that’s something we endeavour to do in 2023.