Are You a Partner or a Vendor?

Living With the V-word

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Millie Olson Millie Olson
Recently I got a call from a major client. "We'd like to get more of our vendors certified as women-owned businesses," she said. "It will be good for both of us." I thanked her but inwardly cringed. The V-word.

Vendors sell stuff. Postage stamps, paper, pizza. Vendors are "transactional," to borrow the term another client used with me recently. Marketing partners are something else.

I'd like to think most of our clients would describe us as a partner. In an industry where the average client-agency hook-up is a pathetic 2.5 years, three have been with Amazon for more than twice that.

We're satisfyingly entwined. It's especially striking with our creative teams. They're as passionate about their clients' successes as they are about the quality of the work. And these clients care about the agency -- from how the creative people feel about the work, to making sure their businesses are profitable for us.

I've been working lately on turning a couple of "vendor" situations into partnerships. One's going even better than I imagined. Another seems to be sliding back toward pizza-delivery land.

What makes for a partnership instead of a transaction-ship?

1. A client who believes advertising is strategically critical to its business. In packaged goods, this is generally the case. In some other categories we've worked on, you could argue that it is not, or hasn't been until recently. And when you're a marketer's first agency -- or at least its first serious one -- it can be rough going. You expect access and information that is not necessarily forthcoming.

2. A client who's convinced it's worth the extra time and trouble it takes to have a relationship. If you have lots of vendors, none may be totally dedicated to your success. But I concede the advantages. Vendors will generally do exactly what you ask, no back talk or whining. You can set them up to compete against each other and keep them on their toes. Best of all, you don't have to have meetings about the relationship!

3. An agency that's willing to open itself up, to become somewhat vulnerable. Ask to be treated like a partner, then put up walls, and it's not going to work. While you never want to bring work to a client that you wouldn't be comfortable running, you need to let them look inside a little, understand your thought process, see some of the trade-offs. Just like you want them to reveal themselves, to react to your ideas in depth and in person. You're a team.

4. A willingness to accept each other for better and for worse. The partnership doesn't really start until the honeymoon period is over and you've survived a few ups and downs together. The relationships that build up over shared experiences, when everyone is equally engaged, truly wanting the best for the business and for each other, cannot be rushed or faked. But if this happens, all the rest is possible.

Just as in the rest of life, a real relationship takes work. It's not right for everyone. Sometimes you just have to back off and accept that.

But remember the client who described our relationship as "transactional"? The one I never thought would be willing to invest the time? He recently proposed a monthly breakfast meeting to talk about how things are going between us, as well as about his business issues.

You gotta love a guy who actually volunteers to talk relationships on a regular basis. Before breakfast, no less.

We may be looking at a potential partnership here.
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