What Will You Get Your Agency for the Holidays? The Gift of Stronger Partnerships

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Thinking outside the gift box…

The holidays, a time of both deep reflection and high festivities, are right around the corner. We pause near the end of each year to celebrate those around us, those we love and depend on, and to acknowledge their importance in our lives. In business, the holidays give us a chance to celebrate
those we work with—our co-workers and partners—who play equally important roles in our professional lives.

If you’re in the agency world, you may wonder what—if anything—to expect from your client this holiday. Recent press coverage sounds as dark as a Dickens novel: deteriorating long-term client/agency relationships, unexpected and prolonged reviews, unrealistic payment terms, and continual budget cuts combined with greater demands and shorter deadlines. It is indeed a mad, mad world out there.

So what should clients get their agencies for the holidays, if not the lavish gifts of yore? How about a bit more sanity in a world where common sense is no longer so common? Agency partnerships are essential to advertisers’ efforts to build healthy brands and effective marketing—in other words, essential to growing business. Better relationships mean better marketing. So this holiday season, let’s end the Secret Santa frenzy and focus on what clients can truly give:
the gift of stronger partnerships.

Gift #1: Clearer goals and better briefing
Too many clients waste precious resources by failing to give their agency partners adequate direction. They lack clear goals and sufficient details, and the scope of work and consequent briefs remain too weak to make effective use of existing talent. Budgets are tentative. Briefs are incomplete. Directions keep changing. Rework is constant. Quality suffers and costs rise. CMOs and their organization
allocate sizeable budgets for agencies to lead and support marketing efforts—they should use these precious resources wisely.

How does this translate into a holiday gift? Clients must provide clear objectives and better briefing if they want their agencies to deliver great work. At Microsoft, I led a company-wide initiative to first audit and then improve the quality of marketing briefs. These changes led to significant savings and better quality work. Clients who provide clear direction and master the discipline of agency briefings set up themselves—and their agencies—for success.

Gift #2: A streamlined approval process
Have you ever attended a creative review meeting and found yourself wondering who the real decision-maker is? Everyone likes to sit around the table, eager to give the agency feedback about the new creative. Agencies are often tasked to deciphera sea of information and figure out what to do with it.

But who really has the final say? Is the ultimate decisionmaker even at the table? How many more creative reviews will burn talent and waste resources because of poor or delayed decision-making? Complex, matrix organizations are common among large advertisers; agencies have learned to overstaff to overcome their clients’ inability to map and execute a clear approval process. And yes, the client ends up paying for these inefficiencies.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Oreo’s tweet “Power out? You can still dunk in the dark” during the 2013 Super Bowl was designed and approved within minutes; it became a sensation in the marketing world after being retweeted 10,000 times within a single hour. Having a clear and streamlined approval process, with few key decisionmakers, let Oreo make decisions that yielded better campaign work at lower costs to clients.

Gift #3: A laser focus on measurable performance
Clients expect top talent from their agencies, but they don’t always want to pay for it. Conversely, agencies build teams that might be overqualified or unfit to meet their clients’ ever-growing needs. Focusing on actual measurable performance is the holiday gift that lasts longer than the
Energizer bunny. It keeps everyone aligned on what matters most and facilitates alignment between resources and the right commercial terms.

So rather than cutting agency fees, consider changing how you reward for agency performance. Leading advertisers like Chrysler have used performance-based compensation with their media agency to drive sales, market share and brand perception. If agencies are a natural extension of your marketing team, why not treat them like you would employees? Reward them for their role in meeting or exceeding your department goals. The great thing? In the true spirit of the holidays, performance-based agreements are not just about money—they also keep everyone focused on what matters most to your business.

Gift #4: Actionable feedback
Tough love means providing direct, insightful and actionable feedback, no matter where you stand in a relationship. We try to practice it with our loved ones: we let each other know what’s good and what’s not so good. Why? Because feedback is central to fine-tuning that relationship. It’s no different in the marketing world: client/agency relationships are increasingly complex and need careful tending.
Healthy relationships must grow. Troubled ones must be attended to. Those who don’t invest adequate time in this “relationship maintenance” usually suffer the consequences down the road.

Having a structured, 360-degree process to gather feedback from all sides generates actionable insight that lets you build on what works best and address what doesn’t. Successful companies have mastered this process. It represents a commitment between the client and agency—the equivalent of diamond jewelry under the tree.

But perhaps the best holiday gift of all is a New-Years’-style resolution. It’s a client’s commitment to be the very best partner possible.

This is all the other gifts wrapped up in one: crystal clear about its goals, focused on performance, timely in its decision-making and effective in its feedback. A client who recognizes that rock-solid partnerships lead to remarkable results and healthy, lasting brands. That’s a gift that keeps on giving.