One can’t help but marvel at the length of some of the most enduring and successful client-agency relationships. Unilever and Lowe & Partners have been together for 117 years, Unilever and J. Walter Thompson for 114 years, General Electric and BBDO for 96 years and FCB and Levis Strauss for 43 years. In an age where the average lifespan of client-agency relationships is less than 4 years, you certainly have to tip your hat to these partnerships.
What is it that they know or are doing differently that has eluded others in their pursuit of long lasting, stable and productive relationships?
While there are certainly many contributing factors, I believe that the most important ingredient in these long lasting relationships is the principal of “fidelity.” In short, these organizations obviously share a commitment to the quality of being faithful to one other. This can be evidenced by their ongoing loyalty and mutual support for one another, an intangible but valuable trait that has served them well. As the late German actress, Lilli Palmer once said; “Fidelity is a gift, not a requirement.” But as can be evidenced by the length of these unions, this gift can yield meaningful benefits.
Experience has taught us that successful client-agency relationships are more often than not predicated on marketplace performance… building enduring brands, driving revenues and expanding market share. Great work and great outcomes are clearly an integral part of achieving success when it comes to enduring partnerships. Such work is also a byproduct of one of the keys to achieving and maintaining fidelity, a shared sense of purpose. This shared sense of purpose is truly the glue that holds relationships together. Whether that is between an organization and its associates or between advertisers their agencies and their third-party vendors.
In a complex, ever changing global marketplace the best way to instill a shared sense of purpose is to gain alignment on five key components of a client-agency relationship:
- Client Business Goals – For an agency, understanding the client’s overall objectives is a necessity for generating break-through ideas and developing work that will move the proverbial needle. It is also a pre-requisite to earning the respect of the C-Suite when providing strategic counsel and advice. The client organization also benefits exponentially when its personnel and business partners have a clear line of sight into the enterprise’s goals. Thus, client-side CEOs might benefit from the wisdom of George F. Burns, who said, “Define your business goals clearly so that others can see them as you do.”
- Agency Deliverables – Establishing the agency’s role and overarching responsibilities is a necessary first step in identifying a specific set of deliverables, which in turn are designed to support the marketing objectives that will contribute to the attainment of the business goals. In turn, these deliveries will also provide the impetus for both the agency and the client to assess what level of resources they need to allocate to satisfy these expectations during the fiscal year.
- Resource Requirements – While we normally think about resource commitments in the context of agency time-of-staff, technology, data resources and the like, both the agency and client must ask themselves what level of resource investment is required to execute these deliverables in an efficient manner. Too often, client organizations may not be adequately staffed to provide timely and or relevant feedback on day-to-day decisions or in the context of providing sound strategic direction at the onset of campaign planning. Thus, both parties must carefully assess the amount of time and level of subject matter expertise each will require to support one another.
- Communication Protocols – One of the realities of client-agency relationships is the constant grind of daily tasks and unforeseen activities that sap resources, energy and potentially creativity. However menial these tasks might be, they are necessary. That said, it is equally as important to establish client-agency contact plans that allow for periodic contact between executives of both organizations to discuss business performance, opportunities and exchange ideas on how the agency can better assist the client in pursuit of its goals. Similarly, outside of the weekly status updates, monthly performance tracking discussions and financial management reporting it can be very helpful to establish regular quarterly business reviews (QBRs). These QBRs should be attended by cross functional representatives from each parties marketing, finance and procurement teams and should address both year-to-date status updates (i.e. project tracking, budget management, agency time-of-staff/ fee tracking) but also allow for meaningful discussion on potential shifts in strategy or tactical support to address competitive actions or market opportunities.
- Performance Measurement – Simply put, what criteria will the client use to assess the value of the agency’s contribution to the attainment of the organization’s goals… and the timely, efficient execution of its deliverables. Discussing these expectations upfront, monitoring progress on a monthly basis and making the requisite course change decisions if and when necessary can be helpful in driving consensus on how the agency and client teams are performing.
Focusing on these components of client-agency relationships will not only instill a sense of shared purpose and fidelity, but will strengthen the level of respect both organizations have for one another. In the end, this is the key to transcending the organizational changes that will inevitably occur on both sides of the aisle and nourish a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship.
When one considers the strains on today’s client-agency relationships there may be no truer words than those spoken by the 35th president of the United States of America, John F. Kennedy, when he said;
“Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction.”