Agency-Client Therapy: How to Build Stronger Partnerships

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Dedicated We Are Unlimited McDonald's team (from l.): Brian Nienhaus, chief executive officer; Chip Knicker, chief digital officer; Graceann Bennett, chief strategy officer; Jon Ellis, chief production officer; Linda Poe, chief financial officer
Dedicated We Are Unlimited McDonald's team (from l.): Brian Nienhaus, chief executive officer; Chip Knicker, chief digital officer; Graceann Bennett, chief strategy officer; Jon Ellis, chief production officer; Linda Poe, chief financial officer Credit: Courtesy of We Are Unlimited

Nearly two-thirds of leading U.S. advertisers are planning creative agency reviews in the next year. Almost as many, 64%, will review media shops, and 61% are prepping to review digital agencies, according to a report from Advertiser Perceptions.

That's an alarming statistic, and not just for agencies. Reviews drain time, energy and money from everyone involved. Rather than jumping into an RFP, some advertisers are trying what consulting groups loosely refer to as "agency therapy."

"There's so much disruption already facing marketers, and so many are focused on doing the transformation they need for their own businesses," said Michael Kassan, chairman-CEO of MediaLink, who runs sessions aimed at avoiding the upheaval that can come from a review.

Adding to the dissonance: the Association of National Advertisers' K2 Report on media transparency, which Mr. Kassan said wound up raising more questions for marketers than answers. Also, the Justice Department investigation into holding companies for potentially shady production practices has some advertisers concerned.

The health checks and therapy sessions MediaLink runs as part of its brand optimization practice aim to help marketers figure out issues they're having with agency partners by bringing the two sides together and asking core questions. "The truth lies somewhere in the middle," said Lesley Klein, managing director at MediaLink, who added that the process is collaborative and surfaces processes or operations that may need to be updated within both the marketers and the agencies. Most of the time, clients retain their agencies at the end of the health check, said Ms. Klein.

"You don't do this because you distrust your agency; you do it because you want to have a better relationship with your agency," said Casey Burnett, managing director and founder of The Burnett Collective, who also runs these sessions for advertisers. "Clients and agencies are notoriously bad at communicating, so it helps to have an objective third party play a little bit of a mediator role," he added.

Most of the sit-downs at MediaLink, according to Ms. Klein, result in a newly negotiated contract or different staffing plan or scope of work, which helps create a road map for the future. In some cases, the company does a six-month checkup with the client and the agency to see how the partnership is advancing with the changes in place.

Paramount Pictures engaged MediaLink to help the company realign with longtime agency partner MEC late last summer, and the experience has been great for the relationship, said Rebecca Mall, co-president of domestic marketing at Paramount. She added that the entertainment company never had a review in mind when going through the process.

"The health check provided an opportunity to assess the relationship, identify opportunities and strengthen our partnership moving forward," said MEC North America CEO Marla Kaplowitz. For example, Ms. Mall said MediaLink helped Paramount work with MEC to determine which areas of the agency were strong in terms of talent and which needed improvement. The process helped "set up the right talent in the right jobs in the right places," she said.

McDonald's, though, went a different route when it brought on Flock Associates about a year ago to change the way it works with agencies and "set up to win for this very complex world we're living in," said McDonald's USA Chief Marketing Officer Deborah Wahl. The company needed to adjust its agency model, but before diving into the review, it had to make sure "we were crystal clear in what we're trying to accomplish," said Ms. Wahl.

After a robust review, McDonald's selected a dedicated DDB North America-led Omnicom agency, which dubbed itself We Are Unlimited and is embedding team members from companies such as The Marketing Store, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Adobe and The New York Times' T Brand Studio.

Simon Francis, CEO of Flock, said when a client is recreating or changing its ecosystem, it almost always necessitates a pitch. Another instance when a review comes into play following the therapy sessions is when there's a significant breach of trust, said Flock Associates Americas CEO Maarten Albarda.

Mr. Albarda said Flock also works hard to make "critical advertisers" look at their agency relationships in a different way. "That romantic idea of the agency as my partner has really evolved into my agency as a business partner, and the word 'business' is important to give it the right color, because agencies are also there to service their shareholders and their financial goals," he said. "It's not just an altruistic partnership."

Marketers have to be honest with themselves and understand that they are usually part of whatever problem they're having with an agency, said Mr. Albarda. On the other side, agencies should try to imagine a client's three-year horizon, rather than just looking at immediate solutions.

Mr. Francis added that marketers and agencies should never forget the importance of facts. "KPIs and data are the underpinnings of a strong relationship because it offers transparency into strengths or weaknesses based on facts rather than complaints," he said.

One obstacle of the agency health check process is that it puts the agencies in a position where they know something is unsteady, said Ms. Klein. To get around this, MediaLink makes every effort to communicate with both sides and bring a lot of the points from the agency side to the client.

Ms. Wahl said another challenge is that the health check process with Flock is a big decision and takes a lot of time and effort, and marketers need to make sure staffers are incredibly involved in the whole process.

But even with that hurdle, Ms. Wahl said she'd highly recommend that other advertisers undergo the process because it forced McDonald's to examine its own business and align internally before figuring out what it was looking for in an outside partner. When the review finally began, Ms. Wahl said the procedure moved a lot more smoothly and faster because of the very thorough, detailed RFP given to agencies as a result of the work Flock did ahead of time with McDonald's to figure out the company's internal needs and operations.

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