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How do brands and solutions providers really feel about agencies?

How do brands and solutions providers really feel about agencies? Lynn Ingham

When you're in the middle of the most critical ecosystem in digital, it's important to understand how the other industry participants feel about working with you. That was the core idea behind the Internet Advertising Association Alliance survey of more than 900 agency, brand, and solutions provider professionals. We wanted to help our industry understand the health of working relationships. And iMedia Agency Summit attendees got the first look at some of the surprising and thought-provoking insights we captured.

The IMAA is a national association of local marketing trade associations, with a particular focus on digital -- groups like ThinkLA, DFWIMA, LVIMA, sfBIG, AZIMA and 314 Digital. Our purpose is to facilitate the health and vitality of digital marketing in cities large and small. In all, 15 local digital marketing organizations participated in fielding and analyzing this research.

In such a survey, there are far more results than could be delivered in one on-stage presentation. So we decided to deliver the three most important -- and timely -- key takeaways. Jim Nichols, vice president of marketing for Apsalar and co-author of this piece, and I were joined onstage by Carol Wolowic, senior manager of media for Panera Bread and president of 314 Digital, as well as Stephen Heitz, managing director of interactive for the LAVIDGE agency and president of AZIMA. Here's the gist of what we shared.

Surprise! Brand actually like their agencies!
Maybe you don't find this result so surprising. But think about how pundits have been lamenting the state of agencies and their brand relationships over the past 20 years. What's clear from these results is that rumors of the death of agency/brand relationships are a bit overstated.

Three quarters of our brand respondents agreed with the statement, "Agencies play an important strategic role for brands." More than 2/3 said their agency "cares about my business like it was their own." And 70 percent agreed that they "have a strong relationship with their agency."

More than a few marketers have been surprised by these numbers. Wolowic said, "The figures are surprisingly strong to me. My guess is that most people would predict lower scores. But, after being on both the agency and brand sides, it is great to see that so many of my colleagues are actually pleased with their agency partners. It's clear that digital leaders on all sides are committed to working better together. Great relationships really are a ton of work, and it takes commitment from both sides to make them strong."

Heitz agreed, saying "Most of us like to think that our own relationships are very strong, even if it seems that, across the industry, there are issues. It's gratifying to see that overall, brand/agency relationships are in good shape."

Good agency/brand relationships depend on spending time together
Time is on your side when it comes to having strong relationships with brand clients. We saw a direct relationship between the amount of time brands spend with agencies, and the perceptions of agency trustworthiness.

What is surprising here isn't that time together matters, but rather that there is such a direct relationship between the number of weekly hours spent collaborating -- and trust. Only 38 percent of brands that spent two hours or less per week collaborating said they trusted their agencies. That number rises to 63 percent among those who spend 3-10 hours a week connecting with their agency. When marketers spend 11-15 hours a week with their agencies, the figure rises to 78 percent. And among those who spend 16+ hours per week connecting, 80 percent said they trusted their partners.

Heitz explained why understanding this direct relationship is something agencies need to keep on the top of their minds. "It's incumbent on you as an agency team to demonstrate your value and commitment, and there's no better way to do that than via direct contact. It can be challenging because some clients don't naturally want to spend a lot of time with you. You need to prove the time is well spent. You need to formulate ways to demonstrate why collaboration and hearing your perspective are worth their time."

Wolowic noted that brands also need to commit to spending time with their agencies. "You don't hire an agency to avoid talking with them, and everyone does a better job when they feel invested in the program. So, without check-ins, meetings, statuses, or picking up the phone, brands can't expect agencies to be equipped to execute. Mistakes will get made, objectives and strategies will drift, and timelines will stretch without making agencies part of your core team." 

Agency/solutions provider relationships need some serious soul searching
No two groups need each other more than agencies and media/technology companies. And yet, our survey showed that the relationships between these groups have some problems. For example, less than half of solutions providers said that they get the time and information necessary to deliver a good RFP response.

And agencies had grievances as well. Eighty percent said their relationships with clients were undermined when sellers went around them.

As a long-time sales veteran Lynn Ingham said, "Lots of sellers try and go around agencies, to make 'brand direct' connections. Whether it's to shorten a sales cycle, or to address a concern that the agency won't present their story right, there are a number of reasons why this strategy is increasingly common. But an agency can provide value to you if your relationship with them is open, honest, and direct. And the flip side of that is that agencies usually have a lot more face time with brands than any solutions provider can get. You don't want an enemy in a situation like that, nor do you want to undermine brand connections to agencies. Weak agency connections will actually complicate your life."

A veteran of both the buy and sell sides, Nichols said, "Many agencies view solutions providers going around them as both disrespectful and threatening. Speaking as a former agency guy, I am not at all ashamed to tell you that I was merciless if vendors went direct to my clients without talking to me first. But I never told someone not to go direct. They didn't have to ask my permission, but rather just let me know when they thought they needed direct relationships. Keeping me informed, and even asking my help -- that's the difference between going through me, going around me, or going with me."

Wolowic noted that two approaches are critical. "Agencies and brands both benefit from vendor relationships, but they should be two different types of relationships. Vendors need to focus on educating and planning/buying with agencies, but vendors should only focus on educating brands about new capabilities and industry trends. Tech platforms might be an exception to that."

Heitz agreed. "Some solutions provider relationships are better when they are brand direct. Especially when a technology sale is involved. But let us know what you are doing. We can be very helpful in helping solutions providers craft the right story for a brand. Ultimately, it's about trust."

Jim Nichols, vice president of marketing at Apsalar, co-authored this piece.

Lynn Ingham is the founder and principal at Digital Talent Guide, a recruitment firm with focused searches for candidates in digital sales, ad operations, business development, marketing and digital agency roles in companies throughout the U.S.

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