When you consider the traditional ad agency model for a minute, it's soon clear why there has been so much industry disruption from trendy "innovation agencies" or "idea factories." The traditional client-agency relationship demanded that clients provide their agencies with high-level direction then take three steps back, with very little to no collaboration.
More clients are opting out of this siloed approach in favor of working more closely with their agencies and being more involved from ideation to execution. In my marketing experience, this more fluid, collaborative approach results in the most fruitful partnerships.
Over the past 10 years, I have been fortunate enough to work with a wide range of clients in industries from real estate to technology, from well-established to startup, and with those who are experienced in agency relationships as well as brand new to the partnership dynamic. This breadth of experience has allowed me to derive a few core principles to guide client interactions that foster closer relationships and deliver powerful results.
1. Lead with data
Rushing to the execution phase may be tempting, but quality work can only come from thorough data collection and evaluation, especially of the qualitative variety (i.e., focus groups, interviews, etc.). The agency that strives to see the world through the eyes of its client, and its end users will always deliver more impactful work and sustainable solutions to challenges.
To illustrate, one of our technology clients wanted to activate a B2B that simplified the renewal of product warranties. After doing some digging, we identified a number of the client's sales teams in other countries that needed extra support. Rather than roll out the program the same way for all countries as originally planned, we designed customized programs around sales readiness and online support availability resulting in a 500 percent revenue increase. By evaluating qualitative data (in this case, the perspectives of all teams involved), we achieved greater and lasting program success.
2. Empower teams
Team collaboration, both internally and on the agency side, will always lead to more effective partnerships. The above example was only possible because of our shared trust with the client, enabling ideation and productivity. The most successful brands create a safe space for their agency to seek and recommend creative solutions that may be outside of the norm or oppose the prevailing perspective and empower them by granting autonomy over their designated project(s). This dynamic was present in our work with one hospitality client; they implicitly trusted us to conceptualize their national marketing campaigns from media buying to creative execution. We were able to reward that trust with powerful insights and multifaceted, pragmatic solutions that resulted in a 30 percent sales increase from the previous year.
3. Understand both the client and its audience
Many brands want to innovate, but not many know how to actualize it. To help clients develop authentic marketing campaigns and experiences, agencies need a clear, unbiased understanding of their ultimate audience. This includes an examination of each relevant perspective to best challenge any preconceived notions. This research and analysis journey, when taken as an agency-client team, leads to more engaged and productive relationships, not to mention a higher level of customer understanding. As everyone starts to understand the insights, client and agency then drive more value from their shared framework.
4. Never stop recalibrating
The most innovative clients exhibit a willingness to test, learn and calibrate their approach to customer engagement. The same is true for agencies. Many partnerships are well-aligned, symbiotic and last for years with consistent shared value. There are times, however, when it's best to step back and reflect on whether or not the partnership still adds value or if it should be recalibrated.
Determine if your partnership still adds value to both parties. Do you communicate well? Does the agency deliver on its proposed share of wallet (SOW)? As the agency, have the client's business leads changed? If so, do your services still align with their goals?
We had a client who had challenges educating their team about the impact of changes to the digital marketing strategy and the introduction of new technology. This need increased, so we offered to help find an expert to bring the work in-house and, as the search was successful, mutually parted ways. Agencies often see the act of a client leaving as negative, but for innovative brands to remain so, they need to be free to grow and evolve. This goes both ways – an agency may outgrow the client over time. That being said, if your agency truly helps you solve problems, don't be afraid to return to them with new challenges.
The practices listed here may not be an exact fit for every client or agency, but they have been critical to our process (and growth) for years. Follow these steps to step out of the silo and into a more collaborative, effective and successful client-agency partnership.