Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Client-Agency Marriage Counseling?

The relationship between a Marketer (Client) and an Agency is often compared to a marriage. Although procurement people have tried to muscle in on the dating and wedding processes, the truth is that the relationship is between the people in the bed together, so to speak. This relationship has its ups and downs, and the primary reason for its “marriage” analogy is that it veers from moments of great joy to being quite often unreasonable, it is prone to emotional and subjective responses, blame and above all, is always high risk.

There are a number of companies offering tools (e.g. Y-Care, RAM) to help ad agencies and their marketing clients assess the status of their professional relationship. These are usually survey based and can be done on an ongoing basis, a few times a year or even just once a year as an annual assessment.

The assessments are usually mutual – agency scores marketing team and marketing team scores agency. The assessments flag areas of high and low performance and hopefully shed some light on those areas that one or both parties need to continue, or need to improve, if the relationship is to be the best it can be.

Whilst I believe there can be flaws in the collection of this data, it often provides the marketing team and the agency with a score – a number – which is either good or bad.
“My agency’s an 83, what’s yours?”
“Oh, mine’s terrible, still a 58”. 
Ideally if either party consistently scores below average, or below 'acceptable' levels, then remedial action needs to be taken. Does the team, or one specific person need training? What sort of training? Capabilities training or soft skills training like people management, managing conflict or time management? Are there process issues on one or both sides that need addressing? Is there a cultural incompatibility? Instead of changing the agency, does the agency need to be changed?

The assessments will highlight key success areas, and urgent issues that need to be addressed. Unless the agency and the marketing team take immediate steps to address these issues, the relationship is heading for the divorce courts. A friend I once worked with was married to a divorce attorney. He said this: 
“once a divorce file is opened, it’s never closed”.

And that’s a bit like the 'underperforming score' situation. Once that doubt settles in, frustration starts building, trust starts falling and the divorce file is metaphorically opened.

So, it's a no-brainer that both marketing and agency teams would assign the highest priority to getting the problem areas sorted, right? Although it sounds simple sometimes these areas are not improved, or even addressed. You may well wonder why this happens, when improving these areas has such important ramifications for both businesses and such dire consequences if not done?

Who knows, but I’ll hazard a few guesses:
  1. Because it falls into Steven Covey’s Important but Not Urgent box? No-one will be harping on this on a daily basis and so it slips through the cracks while the urgency of the day job takes priority?
  2. Because addressing the issues might rock the boat and the agency thinks it might destabilize the relationship and they might lose the business?
  3. Because the parties don't know how to fix the problems?  
  4. Because one party is too arrogant to do it and expects the other party to change completely while they change nothing?
  5. Because no. 4 is allowed to happen because of no 2?
  6. Because one or both parties don’t take the measurements seriously, or thinks its all the other parties fault anyway? 

That's why Adtherapy starting offering Agency-Client Interventions, running successfully since 2007. The current 'score', and the issues that have been identified, are only the starting point.

A recent client asked what the ‘success rate’ was in Agency-Client Interventions and it was an interesting question. In all those that I have done, I have only recommended one partnership to split, as the relationship had deteriorated beyond what I felt was salvageable. Was that a failure? I think not – maintaining a destructive client-agency relationship is toxic for all parties and especially destructive for the end creative product. That agency and that client went on to find new partners with whom they have done great work.

The reason why Client-Agency Interventions are like marriage counseling is that they examine whether it’s possible to improve the relationship to save it, and how. 

A recent study by the IPA suggests that the costs for pitches are extremely high – for the agency and for the client. So we ideally want to keep the relationship intact but make it commercially and psychologically viable for both parties. We want to look at the drivers for successful relationships and what the drivers are for the relationship under duress. 

Just so you know, the IPA recently concluded that four drivers of successful agency-client relationships are:
  1. Transparent and effective approval processes 
  2. Mutually agreed and maintained timing plans. 
  3. Honest and open briefings with clear business objectives, budget, timing and brand guidelines. 
  4. Respectful and collaborative behaviours built on shared goals and rewards.
The most important thing is this: like the divorce lawyer’s sad observation, the sooner this counseling takes place the better for the eventual outcome of the partnership.

As this post says with wise words from Vanilla Ice: Stop, Collaborate and Listen.

My advice? Don’t wait till Terrible Assessment Number 4. or 5.

Deal with it urgently. Get stuck in. If it helps to have an outside party manage the process, then let us add the qualitative and interpretive layer to what you already know but might not think you can do anything about. Let’s scope some Partnership Principles and deal with any process or people issues. Let’s be proactive rather than defensive.

And let’s all live happily ever after.


An Adtherapy Client-Agency Relationship Intervention is a positive and constructive process that aims to learn from the relationship challenges and ensure that the right partnership principles are applied for each party. 
The ultimate aim? A successful business partnership that produces the best work. A recent client described the process as 'part agony aunt, part freedom fighter'. We like that.
Mail or phone on 0832659099 to chat about how we can help you.

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