How To Find The Right Client-Agency Fit
A strong relationship succeeds or fails on the foundation of trust, cooperation, and a shared vision for the future—which is why it’s troubling to see how we go about establishing this relationship.
We talk a lot about messaging, consumer engagement, and brand positioning in relation to the success of marketing campaigns. If any of these factors is out of sync, a campaign isn’t likely to reach or resonate with its intended audience. But we often forget to emphasize one other factor that can make or break a campaign: the client-agency relationship.
A strong relationship succeeds or fails on the foundation of trust, cooperation, and a shared vision for the future—which is why it’s troubling to see how we go about establishing this relationship. In fact, the average client-agency relationship has fallen to less than three years.
For the most part, these relationships start with the scattershot survey approach of requests for proposal, which are really only effective at dehumanizing and limiting communication to a singular direction. They reduce insights to the lowest common denominator of meaningless statistics for the purpose of fast, high-level assessment by procurement or consultants. One could argue that Tinder got its model from the advertising agency selection process. The quality of the resulting relationships is similar.
Our industry is awash with frustration about client-agency relationships and the public “breakups” that result. Blame goes in both directions, yet there’s little focus on the process that brought the parties together in the first place. Perhaps the agency or the client aren’t to blame, but the way in which they got to know each other is.
The Trouble With RFPs
RFPs are misleading. The Q&A at the start of the consideration process often overemphasizes aspects that have little impact on working relationships. In fact, it can even prohibit the interactions that foster mutual achievements. That’s why it’s important to sit across from the agency and get a feel for the people you’re considering working with. Even a brief in-person meeting can be more beneficial than an initial request for information, or RFP, as it can confirm the rapport required to deepen the agency evaluation.
We should never forget that the point of hiring an agency is to drive revenue and grow the business. Doing so often requires the following:
1. Recognize whether the agency understands your needs: It sounds cliche, but seek first to understand and then to be understood. This is an agency’s primary job in new business. You can get a sense for an agency’s relevant experience and capabilities based on the questions it asks you about your business challenges. If an agency asks the right questions, it will demonstrate more ways it can help.
2. Get qualified by the agency: Clients should want agencies to qualify them just as much as they’re qualifying the agency. You want an agency to go after your business because it’s a great fit, not because you represent new revenue or an esteemed brand. Expertise and experience need to be aligned; otherwise, neither side is optimizing the relationship. Ask the agencies you’re working with whether they have qualification processes.
3. Confirm agency capabilities: If the agency is asking the right questions, it will simultaneously demonstrate its capabilities. At our company, we don’t do the typical capabilities presentation, nor do we present case studies or proprietary processes. Instead, we run diagnostics processes. The theory is built on the idea that if we truly understand what we’re talking about, we’re demonstrating our capabilities by showing an understanding of the client’s challenges rather than regurgitating our so-called credentials.
4. Calculate value creation: What you get in terms of full-time equivalents, strategic services, asset production, channels managed, and so on means almost nothing without fully understanding the other side of the equation: the “income.” How much revenue does it produce? What’s the actual ROI? Ask an agency principal what can be achieved, rather than what it’s going to cost.
RFPs essentially create a blind auction scenario. While you may not ultimately decide to go with the lowest price, the process intentionally favors cheaper proposals by stripping the value proposition away from the price. Meet with agencies, get to know their capabilities, and understand what value they offer before making your final decision. Let RFPs merely inform—not decide altogether—what’s a good fit.