Relationships are hard work. Friendships, dating, marriages... they all have ups, downs, twists, and turns. Yet another type of relationship that requires some extra TLC is the one between clients and their marketing agency.
Sometimes, just finding the right agency is the biggest hurdle. There are plenty of agency fish in the sea, but you need to find the special one that can adapt and thrive in your company's pond.
Here are six tips for cultivating a lasting, meaningful relationship with your marketing agency of choice.
1. Commit for the long-term
A relationship will never be successful without sufficient levels of commitment from both sides. After a thorough vetting and interviewing process, your team should be confident enough in your choice to fully trust your new agency's abilities.
To get to that point, ask the right questions when comparing your agency candidates:
- Request to speak with the agency owner.
- Meet your project manager; it's important to mesh with the person you'll be in contact with day-to-day.
- Ask for introductions to, or for the bios of, the other key team members; vet their experience.
- Be sure the agency has niche experience in your industry—ask for relevant industry associations, key partnerships, other work they've done in your industry, and longevity in the space.
- Get quantifiable results from the agency's current or past clients in your industry.
- Ask for referrals and use them.
Quality agencies typically won't engage on small, limited-time, or one-off projects. They want to sink their teeth into a meaty, long-term engagement. They want to be your partner and share in your success.
Remember that results take time. Agencies want to work with companies that understand that and won't threaten their contract if leads aren't delivered in Week Two.
Depending on your organizational structure and on buy-in from above, it can take years to change internal processes. In some companies, it goes against the norm to have a monogamous relationship with one agency; at times, the system isn't set up for it. Bend the rules when you find "the one."
2. Trust in the process
The transition to "client" can be hard for internal marketers. It's more than a change in title; it's a new mindset that requires your team to shift perspective and responsibilities. Just as it can be shocking to go from "friend" to "boyfriend/girlfriend" to "fiancé" to "husband/wife," becoming "client" takes some getting used to.
If you're having trouble with the transition, lean on your agency. They've done this hundreds of times. You haven't. Trust in their processes and abilities. Remember all the reasons you chose them: They have a great team you like, they are industry experts, and they deliver results.
As you grow into your client role, remember that as the designated decision-maker in your organization you have the final say. Your team put its trust in you to manage the agency relationship and make the important decisions. Be able to make that decision and stick to it. Trust that your agency won't let you go off in the wrong direction.
3. Give your partner all
Be as transparent as possible, and don't hold back. Your relationship is going to be most fruitful when there's trust and openness from both sides.
Start by sharing all of your past marketing materials—the good and the bad. Agencies need to see where you've been and where you are so they can help you move forward.
Share your current messaging, brand guidelines, collateral, likes and dislikes, aspirations, where you've come up short, and where you've succeeded.
Air your dirty laundry. Agencies don't like surprises down the road. If there was a scandal, tension in the C-suite, or swirling rumors, your agency wants to know about it. You can trust agencies to keep your secrets; better yet, they can help you overcome your challenges.
You'll see the best results when you move on from transactional, project-based agency relationships to true partnerships—partnerships that are built on trust, openness, and honesty.
4. Have them meet the parents
Or, in this case, have them meet your C-level folks. Agencies need visibility at the highest levels of your company to be successful. At a minimum, have at least one executive take part in the vetting and interviewing process, and also sit in on the initial high-level meetings.
They don't have to be on weekly calls, but they do need to know the agency exists, and they should be aware of what they're doing to support your overall business goals. The lack of C-level buy-in is a sure recipe for a failed relationship.
While you want to be on good terms with the C-level execs, you don't need a permanent chaperone. Successful internal managers of the agency relationship can prevent micromanagement from above by ensuring the C-suite understands, up front, the value the agency brings to the organization.
Making your leadership comfortable with the agency and confident in your management skills will alleviate the need to continually ask for approvals, allowing you to make final decisions.
5. Fights are OK, as long as you grow
Conflicts are inevitable. Some errors, such as missed deadlines, are inexcusable, but most others can be resolved.
Sometimes, small transgressions and tension can build slowly and come to a head in a heated discussion. You wouldn't be the first company to argue with their agency.
Conflicts between agency and client are OK—normal, in fact—but it doesn't mean you have to break off the relationship.
Experienced agencies will know how to pivot, make good on an error, or change the team dynamic to better meet client expectations and working styles. Most disagreements are 100% repairable when calm, sensible heads prevail.
You picked the agency for a reason, so don't be too hasty in throwing that all away to start back at square one.
6. Respect each other's space and opinions
You are the subject-matter expert, no matter how much industry-relevant experience the agency has. Your agency is the marketing expert. Each side has its strengths and should respect the other's expertise.
That distinction can get fuzzy when operating in a partial outsource situation where, for example, the client maintains design execution in-house.
Alleviate the tension and possibilities for conflict by clearly defining roles up front. Assets such as styles guides will also help keep everyone on the same page and maintain brand consistency in deliverables.
Give your agency some time to get up to speed. The agency doesn't have to be an expert in your field, but it should be knowledgeable about your industry and it should quickly learn your products, services, and market inside and out.
A little bit of mutual respect will go a long way.
Are you ready to take the plunge?
If fear is holding you back from jumping into an agency relationship, try to let it go. You'll know the right partner when you meet them.
And if you're already managing an agency relationship, it's never too late for a little counseling. Both parties can always improve.
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