Fall '12 Agency

December 2-5, 2012 | Scottsdale, AZ

How to strengthen agency-client partnerships


The model for how brands partner with agencies is evolving rapidly. Here's where these relationships are headed.

The core strategic partnership between brand and agency is evolving rapidly in these changing times. These imminent changes prompt questions like "What will 'agency of record' even mean in 2013 and beyond?" and "How can agencies and clients strengthen their relationships?"

To answer these questions, Brad Berens, iMedia's chief content officer, interviewed Allan Gellman (SVP of digital marketing at Wells Fargo) and Brian Monahan (managing partner of MAGNAGLOBAL) on their long collaboration.

During his keynote presentation at the iMedia Agency Summit in Scottsdale, Ariz., Berens grilled Gellman and Monahan on the challenges brands and agencies face together, and the forces that can drive them into conflict.

What is your digital AOR?

According to Gellman, AOR means a lot of things. "We need these guys (AOR) to truly understand our business...it means having expertise in the digital space," he said.

Finding a strong agency relationship takes a lot of effort and consideration. "It's important to date before you get married," Gellman added. "We like working on a project basis before we 'get married.'"

Monahan emphasized that it's important for agencies to "play nice with the other kids in the playground." Today's AOR must be able to function as a partner not only to its client, but also as a partner to other agencies. While it's important to execute decisively, not make mistakes, and get great pricing, the most critical asset for a future-forward agency is by far the ability to work effectively with vendors and other agencies. "Understand the ground rules and understand what really matters," Monahan said. "You're not going to grow the relationship by undermining or going behind someone's back."

Despite the fact that this collaboration can be politically tough for agencies, Gellman insists that an agency's No. 1 goal is to help the client become successful. If that means reaching out to another agency for the health of the client, then so be it.

When you are collaborating, whose job is it to set the ground rules?

According to Gellman, setting the ground rules is "everyone's job," but it is also situation dependent. When a campaign covers a lot of ground and uses a plethora of channels, clients will often turn to one seat at the table to say, "You're the lead, it's up to you," Gellman said.

Indeed, having many seats at the table is a common circumstance, and clients that understand what it takes to be a good agency can make all the difference. "Many times, clients are great at navigating their organization, but they'll not be as experienced in navigating collaboration," Monahan said. This can cause a lot of problems between agencies and clients, as the clients don't always understand the agency process. But remember, if someone has to referee a client-agency battle, then you've all failed.

I've got something to sell that will advance your business -- so how do I get in front of you?

Companies tend to try many different approaches -- sometimes they'll pitch to the agencies, and sometimes they'll come directly to the client. "Often, we'll direct them back to the agencies and tell them to deal with it, because that's part of their job," Gellman said. "The only time I want to talk with vendors...is if they're bringing something entirely different," Gellman said. 

How do you blow a pitch?

According to Monahan, complexity often blows the pitch. Part of the challenge is to find where your solution fits into the marketing machine. Clients have a limited capacity to take in all the information at once -- they want you to connect what you do in the digital space to how it can solve their problem. Ask yourself, "How different is it from everything else that's out there?"

So, in other words, it's important to do your homework.

A few tips for agencies:

  • Advertising is a lumpy business. Know when to scale back and know when to ride the wave.
  • Instill a rigorous feedback process so you know what is working and what is not before it's too late.
  • Remember that, ultimately, this is a relationship business.

Jennifer Marlo is associate editor of iMedia Connection.

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