5 ‘Marriage Counseling’ Tips to Avoid an Agency Review

No doubt, one of the most difficult decisions for a CMO is to fire his or her agency. But like any marriage, most client/agency relationships eventually encounter hiccups which cause the relationship to fray.

A strained relationship does not always mean that the partnership should immediately be cast aside. Agency reviews should be a last resort, not an instant cure-all. Calling a review, is a risky, time-consuming and expensive operation, and Marketers should always consider the strategic asset of a long term agency relationship.

If you were to reach out to me or my partner, Dan Reynolds, about divorcing your agency and starting a search for a new one, we would advise you the following: instead of rushing into a breakup, your client/agency relationship may just need a little “marriage counseling.”

Here are five steps to repair a rocky client/agency relationship:

1. Examine and improve communication. Often you’ll find you’re from Mars and your agency is from Venus when it comes to communicating with each other. Neither wants to listen, and instead of a frank dialogue about how to solve your problems, each party digs in. Start by reviewing objectives, make sure that both parties are aligned, and are passionate about meeting them.

Note that to truly fix communications problems will require open discussion – and an objective assessment of why communication failed in the first place. If you’re not sure how to go about this, get professional advice sooner than later.

2. Agree on a game plan. Once there is agreement on objectives, both sides should agree on deliverables, and agree who is responsible for what, and when they are due. The more specific the scope of work, the greater the probability of smooth execution. The purpose is to develop joint improvement plans, define who owns which initiatives, and establish a scope of deliverables and a timetable.

3. A little respect goes a long way. Define how you regard agency empowerment. This is perhaps the most important element of a good relationship. If you and your team constantly tell the agency what to do, the agency will become dispirited and lose its appetite for initiatives.

It is also critical to jointly establish benchmarks and a protocol for empowerment, so that both parties can actually track just how it is implemented. With a myriad of tools out there, there’s no excuse not to get this up and running.

4. Remember that you are in this together. As you define your agency’s role, it is important to establish the agency in more of a consultative relationship with you and your team, rather than a transactional, or ‘standard’ vendor-like arrangement. One key value an agency can bring to the relationship is third-party objectivity. Your view and the customer view both need to be supplemented by the agency view in a healthy relationship. You and your team should encourage the agency to have this independent point of view.

A consultative relationship leads to a better commitment to partnership on both sides and fosters an atmosphere of innovation. When there is trust, the work is better, lines of communication are open, and objectives can be discussed more freely.

5. Clear away obstacles. Like many couples looking at a breakup, don’t expect to have all the answers and expertise to make these repairs on your own. Seeking professional help is sometimes the best answer. Find a consultant with relationship management experience who can act as a neutral facilitator, empowered by both parties to act as an overseer of the process and to arbitrate disputes.

“Marriage counseling” should not just be about griping over the agency’s performance, Its purpose should be to find and develop better, more efficient work process to benefit your business, and to build a stronger partnership – one in which there is a foundation of trust, respect and mutual goals.

Lastly, when a relationship fails, it’s important to acknowledge that it’s not just the fault of the agency, but it’s a failure of the marketer as well – and further, that the marketer has an outsized influence on the quality of the relationship. So, it’s wise for a marketer to anticipate problems and to take preemptive action. Or better yet, adopt this “marriage counseling” approach and implement it as a best practice protocol, and then conduct it rigorously once a year or as required, no matter what shape the relationship is in.

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).  Thank you to Forbes.com contributor, Avi Dan, for portions of the content of this post.  See more at: www.reynoldsandfyshe.com.