If you read the Marketing press, or the plethora of winning award entries for the IPAs, Effies, and last week at Cannes, I don’t think you’d be much the wiser. In the most common form of awardsplaining storytelling usually research led to ‘searingly brilliant insight’, which seamlessly produced award-winning creative idea that was stunningly executed and approved with rapturous applause of all stakeholders without anyone breaking so much as a sweat. Marketing is so easy, isn’t it?
Of course, those of us at the coal face know this isn’t the case. In 20+ years in communications, firstly at two of London’s top agencies working with some of the best creatives in the business, and then at Unilever working on one of the top brands in the world I made work that can be considered great only a handful of times. What, in retrospect, was the key factor leading to this? Now that I look back in it, it was the quality of my agency/client relationship.
It’s the relationship that enables the leaps of faith when the insight is actually a little fuzzy at the outset and that enables us clients to look in the eyes of the creative director and say ‘are you sure you can pull this off’ when the treatment is on the table and the shoot two weeks away. The strength of the agency/client relationship is in fact the most important variable influencing marketing success. The relationship is the ‘magic sauce’ for creativity.
Failing to prepare, preparing to fail
If this is the case, then why don’t we build relationships more deliberately and focus on them like the key strategic asset that they are?
It seems that we are all too busy, and margins too tight, to spend the time up front intentionally to develop and plan for the partnership that will actually deliver greater efficiency, effectiveness and enjoyability in the long run. How can we go about changing this? And what principles might be useful to think about at the outset?
Where to start
Design your alliance - If you’ve ever worked with a top business coach your first session may well involve designing your alliance in a conscious way to ensure that you all get the full values from time invested. Embarking on the same process with your new client or agency partner is critical. Far too often clients want the pitch work delivered yesterday and eager agencies want to say yes to everything, no matter how impossible the ask really is. Six months later, the work in vanilla and shredded by stakeholder feedback, the agency team are burnt out and the account is up for pitch. Again. Spend time before the contract is signed working out how you work together. In sporting terms this is your pre-season. You won’t find Man City skipping theirs.
Agree to disagree and then to agree – For greatness to appear, client and agencies need to embrace the transformative power of conflict out of which green shoots can become great oak trees. The relationship needs to be wrapped in the magical blanket of ‘psychological safety’. Have a conversation about what you want from each other and acknowledge that a robust sharing of opinions refines the good and makes it great. Clients remember to give your agencies explicit permission to disagree, agencies remain curious and remember that protecting an idea isn’t the same as not listening and always assuming that you’re right.
Reduce the empathy gap – About 48 hours into becoming a client I realised how much I didn’t know that I didn’t know about client life despite reaching the lofty heights of being an Agency MD; how decisions get made, the power of KPIs, office politics, REAL stakeholders that can say no to things, surprise budget cuts etc, etc…. Not too long after that I realised that despite being super smart, and well trained, most clients have not spent more than half a day in an agency (and why would they have?) and therefore can often know relatively little about how agencies actually work. Have a ‘magic catch up’ and sit down with each other over a coffee, or something stronger, and engage curiously with each other. Find out as much as you can about each other’s lives and situations,* your opinions on marketing, life outside of work and your company cultures. Reduce the empathy gap enough and you’ll operate as if you were on the same team – which of course you are.
Make space for the urgent and important - Too much of client and agency life is spent in urgent which means important foundational relationship building activities are put off. Just like your supposed weekly trip to the gym, you can get away with this for a short period but then the cracks start to show. Work with your team to prioritise what you know will make for a better relationship over the longer term, face to face catch ups with no agenda, store visits, senior stakeholder engagement, even some fun team building activities. These behaviours will create the long-term conditions for collaboration.
Measure what you treasure – Finally, once you’ve agreed what is important then measure it, that’s how KPIs that get delivered, get delivered. Like a high performing sports team design your process and then trust it, use measurement to hold yourselves accountable as one client-agency team. If you don’t have the right process to create the right team dynamic then the results won’t follow. Focus on, and measure, the process and they will.
Ingenuity have partnered with the Magic Sauce Course to help build stronger relationships post any new appointment. The Flying Start programme helps to create the firm foundation for partnerships that are efficient, effective and more importantly enjoyable.
To find out more about the Magic Sauce course or register interest for upcoming programmes click here
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