The average tenure of agency-client relationships seems to have rapidly diminished over the past couple of decades. In the mid-’80s it was hovering around seven to eight years. In late ’90s it eroded to a little more than five years. Today, some reports have agency-client relationships averaging slightly more than two years. What a travesty!
Everyone has a theory on the causes, from the shrinking longevity of CMOs to the changing sophistication of consumers to the squeeze of the economy. As much as it frustrates agencies, I believe it is a multiple of that for clients who desperately want success (and who doesn’t?) but struggle to find an agency relationship that gives them what they think they are looking for—impressive results generated by big ideas, ingenuity and strategic prowess.
Many years ago, I read an article by Mark Goldstein, who was then at Fallon, talking about how clients could get the most out of their agencies. There were some good insights. Since then, I have come up with at least nine (and probably more) fundamental principles that nurture a meaningful relationship between the marketing agency and client, which ultimately leads to powerful, game-changing results. If a client will demand these principles by removing the perhaps natural roadblocks that might exist in the organization, it will create with the agency a flourishing, productive and impactful relationship that will outlast current trends.
1. Demand complete agency immersion in your business. Great clients open up their kimonos to the agency. Let agency employees work in your stores, go on sales calls, and sit in product and sales training meetings. Share everything—research, sales figures, good or bad news—that is relevant to helping the agency do its job.
2. Have the agency known at all levels within your organization. The more information shared, the greater the contribution from the agency. It’s not just a relationship between the marketing officer (or department) and the agency. It’s a merging of the best thinking of both organizations.
3. Have your CEO involved. When there are big, courageous decisions to be made, the ultimate “where-the-buck-stops” person must be involved. And it’s not just for decision-making. Have that person involved in the strategic discussions early on so he or she has ownership all the way through.
4. Have the agency sit at the strategic table. To maximize its impact, give the agency the opportunity to contribute at the executive strategy level. You’ll find the agency to be much more in tune with corporate vision and will realize ways to enhance it.
5. Set clear, measurable goals with the agency. What is considered success? Notice, I said “with the agency.” It’s a collaboration so everyone feels ownership. Give the agency your sales figures in real time so they see and feel it as you do and can adjust and collaborate accordingly.
6. Be brave. Empower your agency to explore innovative solutions that may be outside your comfort zone. Give them the opportunity to prove their ideas and then support them inside the organization.
7. Give your agency room to fail. If you want your agency swinging for the fence, you have to give them the latitude to miss once in a while. If you give them confidence to think big, they will. When you do criticize them, make the feedback constructive and then press on.
8. Celebrate successes. Celebrate big ideas that got you there. Acknowledge the agency. Praise them often. Find opportunities to bond with them. Be their biggest fan. You’ll find they will fall on swords for you.
9. Show them the money. Give your agency ample resources to do their job. Be realistic and understand what it takes to accomplish your objectives. Take time to know how they allocate resources and collaborate with them. Allow them to set up compensation structures that untie their hands to contribute and be creative at the highest level.
Bryan Thomas, President of the Denver marketing agency, gyro