Find the Right Global Dance Partner

Then Learn How to Move Together

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Phil Johnson Phil Johnson
In my long list of strategic priorities, global capabilities rank in the top three. Clients and prospects expect us to manage media, handle the creation of campaigns and develop field programs in key geographies around the world. Because we're independent, and not part of a large network, we have chosen to build partnerships with other independent agencies. Like most things, it's more complicated than you think but worth the effort.

At their most basic, partnerships between agencies can be nothing more than an agreement to use each other's name to satisfy a question on an RFP. Or they can be a one-sided relationship with one agency controlling the money and the clients. I like to see a partnership where the money flows both ways and where each agency maintains its own center of gravity.

Our earliest attempts at building these partnerships were simplistic. Once we heard that a client or prospect needed global capabilities, we'd scramble to identify an agency in the right region and stick their name and logo on a slide and call them a partner. Take it from me, you can do better than that. These days, we've gotten a lot more sophisticated.

First of all, it's not any easier to round up a global partner for a pitch than it is to start looking for a date at 5 p.m. on a Saturday night. Today, we've got a senior person in the agency cultivating relationships with international agencies on an ongoing basis. We're really looking for three things. First, we want to identify agencies that work in similar markets, in our case technology, health care and life sciences. Of course, the agencies need to be in the right regions, which increasingly is everywhere. Finally, there has to be a good cultural fit. That ultimately takes time to discover, but you can take a few shortcuts. I always speak to or spend time with the principals. We also like to connect the head of media and the head of account services from both agencies because they will have the most interaction. When those conversations go well, you've got the beginnings of an alliance.

A partnership still remains completely theoretical, and probably worthless, until you pitch some business together. You've got to show that you have a seamless collaborative relationship that will serve the client's interests. To be honest, it always makes me a little nervous to bring a partner into the room. Will the relationship confuse the client? Will the other agency overshadow our team? It all depends on how well you manage the environment. In general, the rewards outweigh the risks.

In a recent pitch, we needed to demonstrate that we had on-the-ground media capabilities in the U.K., Germany and Japan. For starters, we took one of our partners to the meeting with us. Prior to that, we spent several weeks working together on the presentation. The media director from the partner agency also joined us for two days prior to the actual meeting. You can't underestimate the power of a few late nights in a conference room to build cohesion among a team. We also had the benefit of sharing another account, so we could use very specific examples when talking about how we worked together.

We've also learned that it's not enough to showcase good partners. You've got to demonstrate your own expertise at managing global business. In this case, we had a senior member of our team talk about his experience running an international account for a large client. His anecdotes and specific life lessons brought the entire story together.

Like a marriage, global partnerships don't get consummated until you share a checkbook. From a business point of view, it becomes real when you're actually working together on an account. Up until that moment, it's just a sales tactic. Beyond good communications and clear letters of agreement, what makes all the difference is spending time in each other's office. That's when the partnerships take root and thrive. We have invited account people from partner agencies to spend a week in our office and it has always been a positive experience. Once those personal connections exist, the physical distance between agencies seems to diminish, and the mutual advantages of this arrangement become clear. You really discover what it means to operate in the global economy.
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