Building a Strong Client-Agency Relationship (from the Client’s perspective)

by Susan Zweibaum on March 15, 2011

Recently, I have been listening to a lot of my corporate colleagues lament about the frustrations they are having with their various agencies.  These brand managers and directors as well as the marketing services teams complain how an agency didn’t deliver on the creative or the execution was poor.  They express the need for their agencies to listen better and have a better ongoing dialogue with them as the client.   It leads me to think about all the different agencies I have managed over time and the strategies I engaged to avoid these frustrations.

While the recommendations may seem obvious , these guidelines are the backbone of any good relationship and are often forgotten as we rush to solve problems and drive sales. 

Build Personal Relationships

Establish strong relationships with each of your key agency contacts.  I don’t mean just the senior management team, but the people actually doing the day-to-day work.  Regardless of your title, building strong relationships is the key to getting any of the work accomplished correctly.  It is through those personal relationships that communication gets stronger and special favors are done.

For example, as the director of marketing services team I had to manage approximately 8 different agencies.  One brand had to postpone a very large sampling program.  While not a problem according to the contract, it potentially was going to cost the agency additional business with a competing brand.  Because of the strong personal relationship I had established with the account manager we were able to come to a solution that worked for all parties.  Without that relationship they probably wouldn’t have been as accommodating.

Take a Team Approach

Too often senior-level executives engage in top-to-top meetings and relationship building that excludes the managers below.  The problem with this approach is that messages at the top and bottom may be different.  It is important for the whole team to understand how everyone feels the agency is performing both from a personnel and project delivery standpoint.   The senior manager will often have final say, but direction must be clear.  Therefore, senior-level managers as well as associate brand managers should be familiar with the entire agency team and communication should be consistent.

Clear Communication is Key and Strong Creative Briefs Are Essential

If you do nothing else with your agency, make sure that you communicate and share your brand’s vision, objectives and marketing plan with them and you provide it in writing.   Your agencies want to do what’s best for the brand and help you achieve your brand objectives.  If they are unclear as to your vision and plans, the plans and creative they develop for you will most likely not meet your expectations.

Additionally, creative briefs are extremely important to an agency.  The briefs provide them with the direction and information to act.  Therefore, your creative briefs should be clear, concise and contain any and all information upon which the agency will need to act.  Just as important is how you present this creative brief to them.  Ensure that you thoroughly review the briefs with your agency, either in person or via a conference call – do not just email the document and expect them to act on it.  Presenting the brief will provide an opportunity to answer any questions directly so that you and your agency are on the same page.

I recently was shared an example about a small company that had hired a marketing agency to develop marketing and sales collateral.  They didn’t provide a creative brief and utilized only a series of phone conversations to communicate their needs.  What’s more, they could never clearly describe their vision.  Ultimately, after 5 different rounds of creative and multiple conversations the client ended up walking away with nothing to show for the expense.  Because direction was unclear, vision nonexistent and expectations not clearly stated the agency was seen as having failed.

Honesty is the Best Policy

Be honest with your agencies and acknowledge when you are asking for something that is difficult for them to deliver or is outside their normal scope.  Let them know that you could see how the request might seem a little unreasonable, but explain why the request is being made.  The acknowledgment will go a long way in getting it done and strengthen the relationship.

The same can be said for delivering critique or feedback on creative.  Acknowledge what you do or don’t like, but don’t do it in completely negative terms.  They want the honesty, but they, like you, would want it to be presented constructively.  Honesty doesn’t have to be harsh and mean.

Treat Your Agencies as Partners

The agencies should be seen as partners and not workhorses at your beck and call.  Treat them as you would want to be treated.  Listen to their point of view; they may steer your plans in an unexpected way that will be better for your brand.  Agencies want to be strategic partners, and they deliver better when they feel they have that commitment from you.  They will put their best and brightest on your brand if they have a financial and personal commitment from the brand.  Just remember that brands that switch agencies every year are not desired by agencies.   

I knew a brand that each year would go out to a number of agencies looking for the best idea for their yearly brand promotion.  They knew they were doing a new promotion each year, but instead of working with one agency over a number of years to build stronger promotions, they were always wondering if something better was out there.  Reality is, they were wasting time and money by having to re-educate each new agency as well as having to share the creative brief with multiple agencies each time.  Even if they didn’t want a retained agency, they would have been more efficient and gotten better results if they worked with one agency over time.

I have built extremely strong agency relationships over my career by following these principles, and I continue to work with these partners and utilize their expertise even though I am no longer their client.  When utilized, these guidelines can lead to more productive as well as more efficient marketing spend.  They also provide a basis with which to judge and evaluate your agency since expectations are clear.

As you can see, these guidelines are from the client’s perspective and don’t address what the agency can do to contribute to strong agency-client relationships.  So, in a future post I will address this question from the agency perspective.

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