I am going to use an example involving polar bears to start out this conversation on agency/client relationships. It may seem like non-converging subjects, but it will come around.
I like polar bears. I don't want to own one or anything, and I'm not part of the PETA-Elite, but as bears go, they seem like simple animals to me... and I like simple. For example, we have documented evidence that polar bears attack and kill humans. My simple advice? Steer clear of polar bears, even the ones at the the zoo.
Yet, polar bears are an endangered species. Thus, there are organizations fighting for their survival. Noah Wyle, an actor from the TV show ER, is the World Wildlife Foundation's spokesperson for the "Save the Polar Bear" campaign. The advertising spot began in December 2008.
Unfortunately, every time I see the commercial, I say to myself, "I can't believe they're asking for money at a time when people are losing their homes."
Yes, it pisses me off. Polar Bears won't be receiving a check from Jeff Louis very soon. The vital point is that I have now formed a negative brand association with the WWF subconsciously, even though it has done nothing wrong.
I also wonder why the responsible agency hasn't had the foresight to mention the possible negative aspects of asking for money in our current economic climate. Even if the spots are free of charge (PSAs), is the WWF willing to risk its brand for the sake of a single message? The polar bear's won't be extinct tomorrow... why not hold off a bit until things improve?
This is the point where client/agency relationships are defined. Is your agency a true partner, or is it simply a paid service provider?
Think about the differences for a second:
A partner has a vested interest in the relationship -- its success stems from the success of those it serves
A service provider conducts business by taking orders and providing service -- its success is based on $$
A partner would rather keep a relationship than commissions from a TV spot
A service provider is interested in the bottom line; there are other fish in the sea
A partner would say, "The economic climate has changed. I think we should reevaluate."
A service provider would never voice that thought
True partnerships are forged by a mutual commitment to honest, often merciless assessment of what is best for the brand and the business, even if it means losing a few dollars along the way.