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‘We’re in this together – working towards more productive agency and client relationships’

March 8, 2010

Last week I was passed this opinion piece from Online Metrics Insider, about the questions CEOs and CFO use to short-circuit otherwise brilliant marketing careers.  It reminded me that the pressures marketing teams and agencies face are largely one and the same.  We are in this together.

A lot has been said about what Marketing must do to “show the value of Marketing”. Even more about how agencies must change to be accountable.  But what of the Agency & Client relationship?

Even the best Agency and Client relationship can get entrenched in the general delivery of things. The transformative power of communications gets lost in the detail of the weekly wip.

If you think that has happened in your relationship then it may be worth asking these three questions:

  1. 1. What could we both do to foster proactivity around the big issues?
  2. 2. How might we turn our relationship reviews into something productive for both businesses?
  3. 3. Is unclear governance bogging us down or taking focus away from the things that matter most?

Some recent experiences have taught me that it pays to apply discipline and rigor around things that I used to think I could take for granted.

  1. 1. Fostering  proactivity in a time poor world:

Some of the most powerful ideas I have seen evolve in agencies have come not from communications briefs but from open ended business challenges.  Just getting those opportunities demands focused proactivity. Sadly proactivity does not bubble up like mineral water or emerge by hiring naturally proactive people.  It requires planning. Specifically Client Plans.  Client plans are time consuming and prone to gathering dust but they can be the mother of proactivity.  If I had been more determined and insistent about client plans over the last ten years then I would have achieved better results.

Proactivity also demands that clients open up a direct (and fast) line to business issues, insights and future plans.  Sometimes I’ve come across an institutional reluctance to share those very things. This can of course reflect a lack of trust or confidence in the agency to put that kind of information to good use. But if you are a client who is thinking that, then maybe you are with wrong agency?  Clients that invest time sharing business challenges and customer insight as well as what keeps their CEO awake at night will generally get the most proactive and considered work.

Proactivity (as in “why is my agency not proactively coming to me with more ideas?”)  is a two way street and not something to expect of an agency partner without encouragement.

  1. 2. Make relationship reviews more productive: focus on the outcomes vs not just the things we want from each other

Are your reviews focused on how the relationship can achieve big business outcomes, or are they a mechanism for agency and client to test whether each is performing?

Agency side, are you coming into the next review defending your track record and crafting your case for a better deal?  Client side, are you only focused on whether your agency is delivering?

Both perspectives are fair but limiting unless there is something bigger in play. That big thing, how to foster and deliver work together that gets big results, can get lost in the review process.

Perhaps that’s why I have finally embraced the idea that surveys (like APRAIS) can work.  I used to feel that was “my job” but that independence can and does help. Independence need not come from a global consultancy, but I have come to believe some form of facilitation will keep all eyes on the prize.

I have also come to believe that it pays to involve more people (agency & client side) in the feedback process.

  1. 3. Good Governance is not just for consultancies and project managers

Tight governance and Rob Limb have not been the coziest of bed partners over the years. But I have seen the difference that a more rigorous “professional services” approach can make.

Agency folk like me can be nervous of the very notion of governance.  Too much process gets in the way of that spirit to woo and conquer.

But paying attention to scope and governance (beyond the narrow confines of a contract) can be more of a saviour than a threat. For both parties.

Without governance  I have seen even the best intended and talented agency people (often planners) appear like exotically beautiful but wholly unwelcome weeds in odd parts of the client garden.

All I mean by governance is a willingness to assess and agree:

  • Scope of relationships:  What should agency seek to influence and resolve? Is there a line? Where is it?
  • Roles and responsibilities of key people on both sides.
  • How the agency can access people and resources inside client organisations.
  • Expectations around communications.

Coming back to the agency game in the last 3 years has shown me that these questions are too often left to chance.  I have seen at least one agency relationship breakdown in the last year because of it.

I have even embraced the role of the dark star of Procurement in the last year. But that’s another story.

As for clients’ side I’d say, do not leave it to chance or your agency.  But I’d also urge that you give your agency the opportunity to form relationships beyond your span of control.  And be clear about the role you play in facilitating those relationships

Last word:

Client and Agency fears and aspirations are surprisingly similar. We share the similar nightmares and dreams. The more we can do to be open about our respective business aspirations, fears and even uncertainties the better.

I realised that part of the equation quite early (after around 10 years) but it’s taken a few more grey hairs for me realise that it takes discipline as well as candor.  Passion is not enough.

For many of us on the agency side embracing those disciplines can feel restrictive, but I now believe there’s more to be gained than lost.

For clients I believe that agency proactivity demands as much of you as of your agency partner.  And that governance and review process must be shaped with both parties at the table.

As a last word, in case anyone thinks I will be off to 6th Sigma training camp any time soon, I still believe that without the right people, the right culture and the right fit (and the odd long lunch) no amount of discipline will get you beyond good enough.  Come to think of it you probably won’t have any fun either.

Robert Limb, Rapp

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