How To Get the Most Out Of An Client-Agency Relationship

The advertising business is, essentially, a relationship business – and in a world that revolves around abstract things like brands, perceptions and ideas, and where judgments are largely subjective, relationships are bound to be highly volatile and emotionally charged. Marketers and advertisers know this going in.

Your relationship with your communications firm is one of the most complex in today’s business environment, and with the economy still in flux and consumer-spend uncertain, it is not unexpected to see cracks appear.

It requires a substantial level of collaboration from both parties to make it effective and sustainable – especially within a rapidly evolving communications landscape where patience is thinner, loyalty is weaker and understanding is more shallow.

The Changing Dynamics of Agency Relationships
The marketing environment has become vast and complex. Few agencies offer the entire spectrum of marketing services in a way that is satisfactory and acceptable to their clients. The need for greater specialization is forcing clients to hire multiple agencies, but is making it difficult to bring these fragmented agencies under one integrated marketing communications umbrella. With the increasing use of social media, there is also greater blurring of functions such as advertising, PR and digital strategies. The convergence of changes is happening in a way not seen before.

Both agencies and clients are being forced to do business with smaller teams than they had in the past. This leaves both the partners with young but less experienced personnel, and it contributes to a general increase in stress and distrust as they are all asked to do more with fewer resources.

Agencies complain of having to deal with more decision-makers on the client-side. These increased points of contact slows-down the decision-making process and increases frustration. Agency executives also complain of being treated as commodities with overemphasis on the bottom-line.

Plus, both agencies and marketers have largely failed to find a meaningful way to measure, judge and compensate creative ideas. There is a lack of consensus on how advertising effectiveness should be reviewed. Solutions that are transparent, cost-effective and, at the same time, motivational enough to sustain the relationship in a productive way are hard to find and agree upon.

Avoiding the Pitfall of Failed Relationships
While we have provided advice in previous posts, here are a few additional points to consider.

Smart clients understand that a strong agency partnerships will produce the best work – and that leads to better business results. They understand that, to get there, all lines of communication must be open and honest. They will also seek a 2 way iterative feedback to ensure that an honest effort is being made to meet the expectations of all the parties involved.

Making information accessible and sharing it freely is one of the essential elements we see in building trust between the agency and the client. The expectations need to be transparent, and both sides must have a clear idea of what the other party expects from them. When there is no consistency in expectations, trust erodes (and blame games begin).

Sustainable long term relationships requires that both parties must have a mutually agreed upon definition of what success means. To increase accountability of results, necessary metrics must be developed to evaluate the performance of campaigns. A fair remuneration system must be built that aligns the agency’s aims with the client’s needs and priorities.

On the client side, there are a number of simple attitudes and behaviors that will help foster communication and work to create a long-term, successful agency relationship.

Install a spirit of partnership in the relationship. The best advertising can only be created in absence of fear. Lack of respect for agency’s expertise, threats of canceling the contract and other undercurrents of intimidation will only create an atmosphere of mutual distrust and aversion.

Establish clear expectations. Define your goals unambiguously and let the agency people know what you want to accomplish with the campaign. Provide all the relevant information they need to soak in your product, people and corporate culture and formulate a satisfying strategy that best achieves the intended results.

Provide a well-written and effective brief. An agency is more effective if clients are clear about what is needed. Provide the critical information necessary for them to complete the task in an agreeable manner and motivate the people to do their best. In the advertising world the end product is less tangible – and failure to define the precise purpose of advertising can simply doom the creative process from the very beginning.

Treat the agency people well. You are in a very complex and interconnected relationship, and you need to do everything possible to make your agency see that they are working with you, not for you. Approaching your agency simply as another vendor will hinder collaboration and disrupt needed synergy. Create a real and productive environment of friendship and teamwork to get the best out of them.

Keep the approval process simple. Limit the points of contact when it comes to approving or rejecting agency work, and make sure that those who sign off on the brief are also those who approve creative. Be honest; if you don’t like something, say so. Be specific; don’t ask for a new execution simply because this one “doesn’t work”. Great clients state precisely why they disagree, then challenge the agency to find a solution that both parties can agree upon. Be kind; think of the commentary as if you are evaluating the person.

Establish clear paths for integration. Set clear expectations on scope and responsibility, and give agency teams the authority they need to succeed. Be sure each team has an open and productive working relationship with partners from other disciplines if they exist. Foster this collaborative attitude by sharing responsibility for the end result.

Regularly schedule assessments and evaluate the progress. Have a formal assessment process to make course corrections before irreparable issues take hold. Develop metrics to increase accountability, and be sure to put in place the means to both gather the relevant data and to analyze/evaluate effectiveness.

Make sure the agency makes a fair profit. At the end of the day, both the advertiser and the marketer look for the same thing – profitable growth in their businesses. Don’t underestimate the importance of holding a wide-ranging discussion to align client and agency needs, interests and priorities. Have a mutually agreed upon remuneration contract that is easy to understand, simple to administer and flexible enough to accommodate possible changes in the future.

An effective and sustainable relationship with your communications firm requires a substantial level of collaboration from all involved. Still, the marketer and his or her team have an outsized influence on the quality of the client agency relationship. So, it’s wise for a marketer to anticipate problems and to take preemptive action.

Mike Fyshe is a partner with Reynolds & Fyshe, the leading, independent marketing consultant in Canada, specialized in increasing the value delivery of marketing communications through related services such as MarCom services evaluation, agency compensation negotiation, relationship management & performance evaluation, and ad agency search & selection. Reynolds & Fyshe adheres to best practices published by the Institute of Communication Agencies (ICA). See more at: