Instead of an Agency Review, Consider 'Marriage Counseling'

Don't Drop Your Shop at the First Sign of Trouble; You Share Part of the Blame

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One of the most difficult decisions for a CMO is to fire his or her agency. Like any marriage, most client-agency relationships eventually encounter hiccups: lack of collaboration or an inability to develop strategic insights that result in business-building creative ideas can cause the relationship to fray.

Our firm is an agency search consultancy, but when marketers come to see me about divorcing their agency and starting a search for a new one, I advise them that instead of rushing into a breakup, their client/agency relationship may just need a little of "marriage counseling."

A strained relationship does not always mean that the partnership should immediately be cast aside. Agency reviews should be a last resort, not an instant cure all. Reviews, when not managed properly, can be disruptive, take months to complete, and be costly.

Here are five steps to repair a rocky agency relationship:

1. Examine and improve communication. Often the client is from Mars and the agency from Venus when it comes to communicating with each other. Neither wants to listen, and instead of a frank dialogue about how to solve their problems, each party digs in. Start by reviewing objectives, make sure that both parties are aligned, and are passionate about meeting them.

Fixing communications problems require open discussion -- and an objective assessment of why communication failed in the first place.

2. Agree on a game plan. Once there is agreement on objectives, both sides should agree on deliverables, and agree as to who is responsible for what, and when they are due. The more specific the scope of work, the greater the probability of smooth execution. The purpose is to develop joint improvement plans, define who owns which initiatives, and establish a scope of deliverables and a timetable.

3. A little respect goes a long way. Define how the client regards agency empowerment. This is perhaps the most important element of a good relationship. If the client constantly tells the agency what to do, the agency will become dispirited and lose its appetite for initiatives. It is also critical to jointly establish benchmarks and a protocol for empowerment, so that both parties can actually track just how it is implemented.

4. Remember you are in this together. When defining the agency role, it is also important to establish the agency in more of a consultative relationship with a client, rather than a transactional, or vendor-like arrangement. A key value an agency can bring to the relationship is third-party objectivity. The client view and the customer view both need to be supplemented by the agency view in a healthy relationship. The client should encourage the agency to have an independent point of view. A consultative relationship leads to a better commitment to partnership on both sides and fosters an atmosphere of innovation. When there is trust, the work is better, lines of communication are open, and objectives can be discussed more freely.

5. Clear away obstacles. A key element of "marriage counseling" is a review of best practices and adapting them to a marketing environment that is changing at warp speed. For example, make sure that there is an alignment on both sides with business needs, and find and eliminate silos and obstacles that might affect the relationship. Best practices are a code of behavior, a pact between the two sides about collaborating.

During the sessions we act as neutral facilitators, empowered by both parties to act as an overseer of the process and to arbitrate disputes. "Marriage counseling" is not about grumbling or the agency's annual performance evaluation. Its purpose is to develop a better, more efficient work process. We start with a detailed audit of activity over a two- or three-year period, map the activity under common denominators, and benchmark perceived issues to determine how they influence the relationship.

More and more, the undertaking involves not just the client and the creative agency, but PR, media, and interactive agencies as well, as clients recognize that 21st Century marketing demands seamless communication and integration among all communication partners.

Experience shows that when a relationship fails, it is not just the fault of the agency, but it is a failure of the marketer as well. Marketers usually have greater influence on the quality of a relationship than the agency. It is wise for a marketer to anticipate problems and to take preemptive action. Or better yet, adopt "marriage counseling" as best practice protocol and conduct it once a year, no matter what shape the relationship is in.

Avi Dan is founder-president of Avidan Strategies, a marketing consulting firm specializing in client-agency relationships, agency search and selection, benchmarking and compensation. He can be reached at [email protected]
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