What Makes Great Client - Agency Relationships?

In my limited years in the field of marketing with my fair share of client engagements; from great ones to those I would never touch again, I thought why not share my 2 cents on this matter. Instead of deliberating over the "Should-Haves" and "Could-Haves," perhaps these principles that I’ve learned will continue to remind me of the right path and I hope they might be helpful to you too:

1. Believe

I think all great relationships start with a gut feeling. Do you believe that this agency can truly be a partner? Will the person that you’re dealing with continuously try to look at different angles to solve your problem? Do they give you an ugly solution, nonetheless, still a solution when it seems like there is no solution? 

We are indeed in the business of people. Therefore, believing that the person opposite of you will continually evolve the team is important. Sure - there may be times that they drop the ball. Who doesn’t? But a successful partnership is not about perfect campaigns every single time - but rather - do they have the resolve to pick themselves up and do better for your business the next time. 

2. Problem Solving

Oftentimes, we go into pitches and present the mechanics of a pitch. I would suggest treating pitches like candidate interviews. The questions should not be only about the idea. They could also be about how the agency will manage, recover, and be truthful.

For example:

  1. In your experience, what would make this idea fail?
  2. The last time you failed at an idea, how did you recover?
  3. What are some of your longest serving clients vs shortest? Why? 
  4. What are candid truths that you’re not telling me that I should know? 
  5. If you were in my position, what would you do and why?

The thing is, many marketing problems today are unique to you. Knowing that an agency might not know everything but has the resolve to find a way is more important than a great idea. Because today, most great ideas last until the next trend kicks in.

What a great client-agency relationship will look like is like any other healthy relationship: each party is committed to investing in one another to grow.

Speaking of Growth…

3. Investment is a 2-Way Street

Do you see your agency growing the support team in tandem with your budget? Some of the best relationships I've had started off with just two people in the support team. Today, we have multiple teams working together across functions to deliver an integrated solution. This process took years and many candid conversations.

Looking back, here are some of the defining characteristics that led to this evolution:

  1. Both client and agency is passionate about doing better, not just checking boxes
  2. Both want to build a team together to support the brand and business
  3. Open sharing of challenges from both sides 
  4. Negative feedback is shared with ample time to recover. Agency must commit to changes over time. 
  5. Budget challenges are discussed openly. Both figure out ways to work around these challenges. In fact, we helped each other manage the quarterly budgets. Contrary to popular belief, the more open we are about budgets, the more optimal the results will be. If client - agency relationships do not have this trust, then it is most likely a transactional relationship.
  6. Get to know the people behind the work. They are your team as well and will move heaven and earth for you once you get to know them. 

4. Understanding

I'd like to cap this off with the goal. It is not KPIs nor awards. Ultimately, I believe the strength of a client-agency relationship is measured by the level of understanding. Here are some areas that I believe can serve as the building blocks of great chemistry:

  1. Understand that the agency will never know your business better than you. Instead, seek to always deepen their understanding of your business while the agency brings perspectives from different industries
  2. From the agency side, understand that the deeper the understanding of the client’s business - the more relevant the solutions become, taking into consideration the nuances, stakeholders, customers, and also market challenges and opportunities. 
  3. The agency should have business conversations with the client(s) instead of just project ones. Understand that ultimately, all of us (clients especially) have stakeholders to manage
  4. Therefore, the agency must understand the client's stakeholders just as clients must understand the internal challenges of the agency. However, each party has to fight their own battles for one another.
  5. Understand that perfection is not measured by campaigns but by the number of problems that both parties can overcome together over time. The greater the number, the stronger the relationship.
  6. Understanding that we all have our bad days helps as well. Like most relationships, understanding that a healthy amount of tension promotes growth.

I write the above as an introspective piece and also to remind myself to be grateful for the number of great relationships that I've been lucky enough to earn over the years.

If you have something to say to me, would like to connect or share perspectives, hit me up at https://www.linkedin.com/in/alexooi

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