Seven Things Marketers Need to Know About Agency Partnerships

October 9, 2013 Satoru Wakeshima

So, you go through the long, arduous task of an agency selection process. “We’re not looking for just a great agency,” you say. “We’re looking for someone that will truly partner with us.”
The agencies go through a rigorous request-for-information (RFI) and request-for-proposal (RFP) process that involves lots of important people who have little time for this kind of thing, but “this will affect the future of our organization and our brands!” Then each agency is brought in to demonstrate how it is different, answer questions with all the right answers, and put on a show. Finally, you’ve found them—the agency you’ve been searching for. Great people, incredible talent, the right experience, and, thanks to procurement, a great price! You’re excited and they’re excited, too. “We love these guys! GREAT! (pause) Now, we can’t stand them.”

Unfortunately, those quickly changing feelings are common. Why?

Let’s look at how a partnership between an agency and a client compares to other partnerships in our lives.

1. Money Matters

Most people don’t have to pay someone to be their friend, mate, or partner. Money makes a relationship awkward. But here’s the truth: The creative folks aren’t in it for the money. The money is a necessary means for people to be creative for a living. Creative people are motivated by the opportunity to do great work. We want the work to be great, not for our clients, but for us. Why is this important? Because to get the best work out of a creative agency, you have to get past any misconception that they’re out to get you. They’re not. A creative agency’s work is its calling card. The more successful the work, the better we look. The better we look, the better we feel.

2. Expertise and Experience Means Something

Think about other relationships where your expectation is that the person you’re paying has specific expertise or experience—doctors, lawyers, mechanics, accountants, etc. These people “work for you,” but you’re likely to want to work with them because they’re trying to help you. You don’t usually tell a doctor or lawyer how to do their job because they’re experts. Are the folks in your agency experts in what they do? They should be. And didn’t you just go through a very rigorous process in hiring them?

3. Your Partner Wants to Help You

How is your relationship with your doctor different than your relationship with your gardener? You have a much more respectful relationship with someone who’s trying to help you solve bigger problems. There’s a lot more on the line when you’re dealing with your health or legal matters, than if your grass is cut too short. Your agency is trying to help you solve brand problems—that’s pretty important.

4. Respect One Another

There are also relationships where you’re paying someone to do something that you know how to do, but don’t really want to do, like cutting your lawn. Unfortunately, you’re not likely to show these people the same respect you would your doctor. (Truth.) But these people are likely to want to do a better job for you. Whether you’re asking your agency to help you with highly strategic, creative work, or maintenance work, you want them to feel like everyone’s on the same side. Because ultimately, you’re all working towards the same objective: great work.

We agency people are like puppy dogs; we want you to love us and we want to please you more than anything. Tell us you love us, treat us with love and respect, and we’ll bend over backwards for you. Hell, we’ll even give you extra work for free! Treat us like we’re on opposing sides and… well, we’re less likely to want to please you.

You don’t need to show your agency “who’s boss.” Trust me, we already know. Because without our clients, we have no business.

5. Good Partnerships Are Fair

In any partnership, there’s give and take. Each partner needs to feel like they’re getting something in return for what they’re giving. Like in any business partnership, there’s a value associated with time. If something requires a lot of time or needs to be done in a really short amount of time, it generally costs more. But being fair isn’t just about money. One of the most important factors in making either scenario work is the amount of your time you invest in setting your agency up to succeed. Your time in planning, preparing, organizing, gathering, and explaining will directly impact their performance.

Being fair also means being loyal. When you’re loyal in a relationship, it can prosper. Play the field, and the relationships become less meaningful. It’s common for clients to require their agencies to sign contracts that prohibit them from working with their direct competitors. But is that a commitment from both partners? Just like a person who dates too many people at the same time, gets a reputation, so can business partners. Just like in a good personal relationship, with commitment comes trust. 

6. Trust Is Everything

The best partnerships are founded on trust. Trust is earned over time and demonstrated by actions. We typically enter a partnership cautiously—that’s natural. But just as agency needs to earn a client’s trust, clients can do things to earn an agency’s trust, whether by helping them communicate their perspective to senior leadership, working with them to secure more time for the project, or just truly listening to what they’re saying. Trust is what makes each partner feel like they’re on the same side.

7. Don’t Forget to Appreciate Your Partner

I really appreciate great clients who exemplify the word “partnership,” and I let them know how much we appreciate their support. I tell them and I show them by treating their business like our business. Saying thanks, dropping a little love note, and showing your partner how much you appreciate them goes a long way. Don’t worry—you don’t need to remember birthdays or buy flowers. But like a good marriage, a good business partnership does take effort.

So in the end, the client and agency partnership is actually quite a lot like the other relationships in one’s life. There will be bumps in the road, walks in the park, celebrations, and sometimes tears along the way. But with the right partner, the work is worth it.

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