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Love that Lasts: Building an Agency Partnership for the Long Haul

Posted 14 July 2015 9:00 AM by Steve Swanson

Wow. What a summer. There are tons and tons of media reviews under way and, after those are completed, I’m sure more will be on their way. If this trend continues (and all signs indicate that it will), then fall will be a very busy time for our industry. And while the sales and marketing side of me welcomes the opportunities, the seasoned industry veteran in me finds the unprecedented velocity, flurry and volume of reviews disturbing.

I’ve been in advertising for more than 30 years. And during that time, I’ve enjoyed the benefits — and I mean definitive, measurable, mutual benefits — of client relationships that span 10, 20 and 30 years. With all these seemingly quick-turn reviews, I worry that the art of building a truly successful client-agency relationship is slowly falling to the wayside. Are brands suddenly looking for the easy way out — clamoring to resolve unforeseen setbacks with unwittingly shortsighted thinking? Or is this recent trend reflective of something deeper? To be honest, I’m not sure. But what I do know is this: The “why” does not matter as much as the “what” — i.e., what we can do to pursue and cultivate client-agency relationships that have the ability to grow, evolve and succeed —not just today but well into the future. With that aim in mind, here are four things to consider when managing your agency partnership for the long haul:

1.  Do you have a true partnership with your agency? Is it a symbiotic alliance or is your relationship merely transactional in nature? With a partnership comes deep, shared respect for the thinking and the work being produced — together. If that’s not there, then you’re just counting deliverables, timelines and dollar signs. A partnership is also balanced — both parties working equally hard to get the job done. And there’s also chemistry to consider. Are you each working to maintain that key connection — and at the highest levels? When Moxie participates in a review where an incumbent agency is involved, one of the first questions we ask hones in on the partnership itself: “Is your existing relationship fixable?” The answer speaks volumes.

2.  Have you conducted a real competitive review with your agency? This isn’t about your current competition. You both know who that is. This is about your future competition: Who are they, where are them coming from and — most importantly — what are you and your agency partner doing about it? We all understand the process of marketing, but we frequently forget its quintessential role: to create a value exchange for customers. And that value exchange is shifting and evolving daily (just take Uber, Airbnb and Amazon, for example). So apply a healthy helping of agency knowledge and begin to think hard about the various forms of disruption. Today’s consumers expect anything, anywhere and any time. Competition is now about dealing with two giant forces: (1) an era of convergence and (2) an age of empowerment — both fueled by technology and innovation, with consumer expectations at their foundation.

3.  Ask your agency “What if…” and “How can we…”? This point ladders back to the previous one and is all about stimulating thinking and inspiring a dialogue. Questions like these open up a world of possibilities going forward. They challenge assumptions, test limitations, tear down the old and help create the new. Most importantly, they allow both partners to explore and apply their expertise, creativity and ingenuity in unexpected ways. These questions also inevitably lead to others, which ultimately allows both sides to come up with solutions that would otherwise be impossible.

4.  Are you being honest with each other? Do you use a candid, two-way progress review process? Does your agency believe in the concept behind a Net Promoter Score? A true partnership takes work, time and attention. Assumptions built over time are like sand castles: They will crumble and collapse with the tide (and folks, the tide is in). So make an effort to ensure you’re being honest — with yourself and your agency partner. An ongoing  “top to top” active relationship also helps ensure that both marketing management and agency principles are in sync beyond an annual comp conversation.

There are, of course, other considerations to weigh aside from those shared above. But these core four pave the way to a solid partnership — one that has the foundation, scalability and flexibility to sustain value, growth and success over time. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve experienced the benefits of long-standing client-agency partnerships firsthand. For me, they are the gold standard and always will be.


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