Marketers, Agencies and the Arranged Marriage

Pointers for Client Execs 'Inheriting' an Ad Agency

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Curt Hanke
Curt Hanke
In the world of our, "What have you done for me lately?" corporate culture, the average tenure of client-side marketing positions is on the decline. Which means that, sooner or later, every agency -- large or small -- eventually deals with the "inherited client" -- the new VP of marketing who is now your new client. And so, the problem: They didn't choose you. And now you're shacked up. (Uncomfortable silence.) Discuss.

At best, it's an arranged marriage of sorts where you learn to love each other. At worst, it's a death march for everyone involved. So, from the perspective of an agency who's been there (and survived more times than not), here are a few notes for "client-siders" who are inheriting an agency (and weren't involved in the selection process).

The First Question
Let's cut to the chase: Do you even want to try to make it work? Let's be honest. Seriously, it will be easier for us both that way. Are you an, "I'm open to new people, agencies and ideas" kind of person, or are you an, "I've gotten to where I am by leveraging my established network and feel safer with people I already know" kind of person?

(If it's the latter, no hard feelings. We get it. To be clear, we hate it -- but we get it. You have your peeps, we have ours. You weren't there to see us prove ourselves to your new peers with our passion, our intellect, our hard work, our big ideas, our ceaseless effort. . . . OK, fair enough. Maybe there are a few hard feelings.)

But again, let's just cut back to the chase. Because there is nothing worse than trying to court a client who is simply not interested. We understand that we need to earn the business of our clients each and every day. We serve at their pleasure. If you're not interested, just say so. But if you are, here are a few thoughts on how to have a constructive, productive and -- dare I say -- enjoyable dialogue together.

The Right Questions
"I'd love to see your capabilities presentation." Ugh. Seriously? Because from our perspective, that is the worst possible way to evaluate whether an agency is right for your company. As an old colleague used to say, seeing an agency's capabilities is like asking a doctor to see the leg they fixed last week while you were sitting in the waiting room with a broken arm. Not relevant. Not interesting. Destined to be a snoozer (at best).

Rather, how about the following as a starting point -- provocative, strategic and inspirational questions to start a dialogue with your new agency. In other words, the very attributes that good clients value from their agency partners:

  • What is your perspective on our business?
  • Where are we? Where should we be? How might we get there?
  • What are our biggest opportunities? Barriers?
  • If you were in charge, what would you do differently?
  • What are we completely getting wrong? What are we getting right that we're not doing enough of (or talking about enough)?
  • How does our organization and/or process get in the way of great marketing?
  • Bottom line, what do we do to drive our business forward? What are the low-hanging fruit? What are the game-changers? How can you help us get there?
If your newly inherited agency isn't fired up to answer these questions, then it is definitely the wrong agency -- we can both agree on that. But if there is any chance of making your "arranged marriage" work, this is the type of conversation you need to have from the get-go. Total honesty and transparency within the context of defined goals and metrics. And maybe, just maybe, you'll find out that they know a thing or two about your brand's opportunities and vulnerabilities.

The Best Intentions
If you've read anything in the emerging field of behavioral economics, then allow me to make a huge oversimplification: We're all monkeys. In other words, we're all incredibly emotional beings, whether we want to admit it or not. Yes, Maslow was right. We all need shelter, food and the like. But more importantly, we all want safety. A sense of belonging. And the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.

For some reason, people often want to pretend that "business" is the land of the "rational," but that's simply not the truth. On our side of the fence, great agencies get great work from their employees by creating a great culture. In his amazing work, The Simple Art of Greatness, James Mullen put it this way: "Great work doesn't just spring from the minds of one or two creative people. It is actually produced by an entire organization that understands and encourages that greatness."

The same is true for great client-agency relationships. If you come to the table with good faith, are willing to engage in a collaborative relationship and are open to innovative thinking, amazing things can happen. If not? You get out of any relationship what you put into it. I hate to say it, but it honestly is that simple.

At the end of the day, the value an agency provides is ultimately driven not only by the quality of the work, but equally by the quality of the relationship it has with its clients. And that, my friends, is a two-way street.

Curt Hanke is the co-founder and account director of Shine, a 32-person advertising and interactive agency headquartered in Madison, WI, serving clients such as Harley-Davidson Motor Co., Carver Yachts, Wisconsin Cheese, Kaplan Inc., and Winston Fly Rods.
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