Too often, brand / agency relationships are formed on weak foundations. The story often begins as a RFI or RFP. The brand has a specific ask and the agency has capabilities, real or imagined, that loosely fit the request. Similar to a middle-school dance, the brand awkwardly approaches the agency from across the gymnasium, and the agency coyly responds. The conversation is self-serving from both sides. Needs are poorly articulated, capabilities are inflated and expectations are unrealistic at best. While the first dance is clumsy, it may be good enough to get a first date.
While first dates are fun, both sides are more often interested in the second date, the third date, and the relationship that follows. In business, we tend to value partnerships over transient acquaintances. These partnerships yield better quality work for brands, and stable revenue streams for agencies. And, while the coveted “Agency of Record” role is increasingly rare, having trusted partners who address ongoing needs is invaluable.
So, how do we build more productive, sustainable relationships?
For brands, It starts at the beginning. While there are a number of tactics a brand may request, understanding the root cause of why that tactic is necessary is paramount to relationship success. Instead of stating, “We need a social media campaign.”, consider why a social media campaign might be necessary. Is it to engage with loyal customers? Launch a new product? Enhance customer service? Keep an open mind. The right agency partner will question your motives – this is a good thing. Also, set up your potential agency for success. Do not spend weeks or months crafting a detailed RFI or RFP and expect an agency to have a fully fleshed out response in days. If you are looking for a truly productive relationship that drives success and grows your business, make sure potential agencies have ample time (a few weeks) to effectively respond to your request. Finally, sending out something at 4:59 on a Friday, before a holiday week will not garner the best responses. Agency staffers are people with families and friends too, who appreciate the occasional weekend and holiday off.
For agencies, recognize you are not order-takers. This is a role that immediately sets you up as a commodity, and unless you are willing to do lower quality work, at a higher speed and lower cost, stop here. To achieve trusted partner status with your clients, you must have an informed POV. Study and learn the clients’ business. Be aggressive in sharing your perspective, and setting realistic expectations on the response. Don’t be afraid to say “No.” It is often better to decline the wrong opportunity and relationship to free up resources and funding to pursue the right one. “No” is one of the most powerful words an agency can use. “No” is risky. “No” means you are willing to sacrifice immediate revenue potential for a greater good. “No” causes clients to sit up and take notice. “No” separates you from the pack. “No” is not disrespectful, in fact, just the opposite – “No” means you respect the client, the work, and the partnership so much you are willing to do anything to ensure success.
Finally, semantics matter. Suppliers are warehouses full of stuff. Vendors are guys on the street selling hot dogs. Partners are what both brands and agencies should strive to be.