Written by Lindsay O’Neil & Stephen Boehler
There is much riding on the relationship between a company and their agency. The best work will come when the relationship is positive and respectful. Therefore, the client/agency relationship, when at its best, is a partnership like a good marriage. Both sides must be willing to work hard at the relationship over a sustained period of time. The client and the agency must each be willing to create and sustain the partnership. Ultimately, the payoff for the hard work and patience is longevity in the relationship, enhancing the investment in energy for both parties.
Seven Characteristics of Great Partners
A key to a strong relationship between the client and agency is a sense of partnership. Our study sought to determine what makes a great partner. Seven key themes emerged demonstrating characteristics that great partners possess.
Great Partners Maintain Philosophical Alignment
The first characteristic of great partners is a philosophical alignment between both parties. Without some common philosophical beliefs, it will be very hard to have a productive relationship. Values alignment is fundamental.
Specifically, for the client/agency relationship, shared beliefs are needed between the agency and client on the following questions:
- What is a brand and what role does it play for the business?
- What role does advertising/media/PR/digital play and how important is it REALLY, REALLY?
- What makes for good advertising/media/PR/digital?
Great Partners Speak with ONE Voice
Furthermore, great partners are unified and make clarification and direction as simple as possible. To add clarity, one person needs to be accountable. In a workplace where most are encouraged to give their two cents, the majority of clients struggle with the idea of a single point person. Ultimately, clients need to have a single point of accountability for decisions being made that will affect the advertising for the company. The appointed decision maker should be present in all key meetings with the agency and should have direct and frequent contact with the appropriate players at the agency. Without a key decision maker who speaks clearly and stridently, client direction to the agency can be fractured. When fracturing takes place, the agency is often forced to “follow the loudest gun.”
Communication roles must be clearly defined in the client/agency relationship. Those in leadership positions must be explicit with their internal team, from the top down, in both verbal and written communication as to:
- What the “ground rules” are
- What the expectations of the agency are
Furthermore, to ensure clarity of direction to the agency through the one voice of the client, top-to-top relationships are critical because the higher the level of the people in on the discussions, the better and faster the results. People involved in the key decision-making process need to be those who can say “yes” and not just “no.” When there are too many people providing input who do not add strategic value, the agency will end up spinning their wheels and delaying work that needs to happen.
Great Partners Manage for Consistency
The role of stability in client leadership is extremely important. Constant client change can be very difficult for agencies. Management changes can breed problems and uncertainty about the competency on both sides of the relationship. If the client/agency team has been functioning under one direction for years and new leadership makes significant changes, it is hard to shift gears. When a new chief marketing officer arrives at the client, the agency typically expects to be fired. Unfortunately, this kind of behavior often shortchanges the business. The client needs the institutional thinking that their tenured agency will provide, especially during times of transition. Technically, it may be an easy decision to fire the agency, but the decision makers must keep in mind that the client is not just losing the agency but the storehouse of knowledge that has been built up from working together as partners.
To avoid doubt and insecurity, longevity with a good team is ideal. While it is best if people on the teams do not change, change does have a role and is inevitable at times. If things need shaking up for a fresh perspective, perhaps try changing people on the account, possibly replacing members of the creative team and/or the account team. However, it is important to keep most of the team in place for consistency and balance. How the client and agency maintain consistency during times of change can be the difference between success and failure.
As a best practice for managing for consistency, a senior client executive should be involved in the evaluation and approval of advertising. The person approving advertising should be experienced; junior team members should not have their own approval step in the process of evaluating creative. Due to lack of knowledge and experience, junior marketers are often more conservative and afraid to take risks. Junior clients, if provided their own approval power, can sometimes sanitize creative and kill good ideas before they even reach more experienced clients.
Additional best practices for managing consistency include meeting regularly and ensuring constant interaction between the client and agency. Furthermore, the client needs to make sure that the agency works from a strategic brief. Finally, the client should have a strong organic sense of who they are and what defines their core values. Their core values should stay unchanged but be flexible enough to accommodate creative expression.
Great Partners Have Clear Roles and Checkpoints
Great partners clearly define roles and responsibilities at each level for both the client and the agency. Checkpoints, such as standard approval processes, are also in place and clearly understood. Monitoring of agency activity is regular and routine, for example, via weekly status reports of project work. Vice Presidents on both sides meet regularly to maintain strong core alignment. Furthermore, the CMO of the client should meet regularly with higher executives at the agency, or at least attend regular conference calls, to provide business objectives and a viewpoint of the delivery calendar, which filters down to all in marketing so they can execute against it. Daily communication should also occur at the operating level. For some relationships, the client is at the agency as often as once per week.
Great Partners Foster Clear Communications and Expectations
Maintaining honest and clear dialogue is crucial for great partners. Frequent and candid conversation is essential and when this type of communication is lacking things can get terribly unproductive very quickly. If the client is not up front early in the process regarding expectations when the work is not up to par, there will be a snowball effect of wasted time rolling into wasted money. Therefore, expectations must be clear for both parties and the expectations and opinions should be shared regularly. In business things change and thinking changes; nonetheless, it is the responsibility of both the client and the agency to constantly check with each other to make sure that expectations are on the same page.
As a best practice, some clients interviewed begin each project or campaign with a kickoff or “springboard” meeting between the top client decision makers and the agency. At this meeting the client must provide clear direction to the agency regarding their strategy and marketing objectives. In return, the agency must produce creative briefs that are consistent with the strategy and objectives. The process is actually described as “liberating.” The creative team is not released to create until this meeting occurs and they are thus better able to clarify priorities and manage trade-offs. In this process, it is ok to disagree, as long as the partners have a process for managing conflict productively and keep the dialogue about the work. Respondents placed a very high value on clear communication. However, according to participants it is not normally done well.
Great Partners Have Effective Processes
Every good partnership has a clear process for translating strategy into execution and it is known to all players. If working correctly, the process should be invisible and should liberate the work to occur. The process itself should never become or replace the work.
Moreover, the process must become instinctual and part of the culture. The modus operandi may be much less formal due to the nature of the relationship or the pace of the work. It may also vary depending on the client’s size (global vs. regional) and number of project assignments.
A clear process for the development of strategy and execution must include and define the following:
- What is the sequence of activities?
- Who owns what? In particular, what decisions is the agency able to make?
- Who is the decision maker on the client side?
- What are the core principles around each activity?
Great clients also have a formal process to evaluate their agency. The criteria differ depending on the client. The key is to uncover if “the work addresses the intent of the brief.”
For the agency and the client both to truly benefit from reviewing the agency there must be an understanding by both parties of the process that is used for the evaluation, and the activity and results that are monitored. Often, the review process is a risk-reward process for the agency. Typically, the review is partly based on qualitative assessment but also tied to certain aspects of brand health. And these factors determine the level of compensation that the agency receives.
To get most value out of the review, deliver feedback face-to face to the agency with senior management present. Additionally, encourage the agency to give feedback to the client as well. In the best partnerships, ongoing informal feedback is constant by team members on both sides of the relationship. This keeps the work on track.
Great Partners Have Agreed-Upon Strategy
Great partners spend a lot of time developing and working from an agreed-upon strategy.
The role of consistency in direction and strategy, from client to agency, is one of the most important factors of a solid working relationship. Without this strategic alignment, there can be chaos, duplication of efforts, and the expense of running the agency sharply increases. A clear process for strategy development and an agreed-upon strategy has the power to solve all kinds of personnel, workflow, ego and other relationship issues. A lack of strategy is akin to not having boundaries, borders, and curfews for kids—all hell can and often does break loose.
Agencies prefer working with clients who come to the table with a sound strategic mindset. A strategically thorough client makes it easier for agencies to do their work. It also makes it easier to be fairly evaluated against strategic intent. Additionally, strategic clients think in terms of the problem they are trying to solve. Strategic clients don’t just think in terms of an advertising campaign. That said, a client should not alter the strategy frequently. Often advertising works best if the strategy is broad and doesn’t change over long periods of time. A long campaign typically gives consumers something with which to identify. And often a campaign often runs out of executions before the strategy itself runs out of steam.
One of the worst things for an agency is working with clients that are constantly changing their mind. Clients and agencies need one strategy. If one day the client wants this and one day they want something else, the agency becomes reactive versus proactive. A client needs an agency to be nimble. But when the client abandons strategy, it is difficult for the agency to function.
Solutions and Recommendations
It is possible for clients to turn their agency relationships into a key strategic advertising competitive advantage. This can be done through a partnership-centered process:
- Trust the agency’s expertise.
- Be open with data and information.
- Maintain consistency with strategy and leadership.
- Be transparent with expectations of the agency and clearly define success.
- Evaluate the state of the client/agency relationship frequently and thoroughly with formal and informal performance review processes.
Adopting best practices toward the goal of a partnership-minded and respectful client/agency relationship ensures that positive advertising results can be regularly achieved.
We excel at starting new relationships off on the right foot and helping to maintain (or heal) those that are longstanding. If you are interested in learning more about how our approach will help you in your efforts, please contact us.
Lindsay O’Neil, a Senior Consultant at Mercer Island Group, has participated in extensive research across all marketing practices including Media, Digital, PR, Advertising, and Social. She has led and participated in numerous agency searches for clients like Envestnet, Zillow, Barre3, TrueCar, Brooks Running and Hitachi Vantara. One of her key strengths is her deep understanding of marketing strategy and agency new business development practices.
Steve Boehler, founder and partner at Mercer Island Group, has led consulting teams on behalf of clients as diverse as Nokia, HP, Microsoft, Sprint, Nintendo, Abbott Laboratories and numerous others. He founded MIG after serving as a division president in a Fortune 100 when he was only 32. Earlier in his career, Steve Boehler cut his teeth with a decade in Brand Management at Procter & Gamble, leading brands like Tide, Pringles and Jif.