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August 4, 2014
Enhance Your Agency-Client Relationships for The New Normal
 
The ongoing post-recessionary economic doldrums have affected everyone in the ad business: the holding companies and the independents, the multi-nationals and the boutiques, the pure-plays and the 360-integrated. On top of impacting their bottom lines, the recession has also caused some seismic changes in Client-Agency relationships, leading to rockier and less stable connections. Clients’ patience grows thinner in tougher times, and demand for better, and more measurable, performance and ROI is the norm. 
 
But far from shying away from these realities, agencies today should be embracing the new normal for the long-term benefits this performance-driven mindset will yield. The following are ten ways to drive stronger Agency-Client relationships focused on mutual success. Some represent small adjustments to current approaches; others likely require more fundamental changes. Regardless of their appropriateness for today’s economic climate, these approaches are the new normal — relevant today and into the future.
 
1. Stop developing ads; start developing business solutions.
This may sound strange for a company that develops ads for a living, but you shouldn’t view yourselves as simply making advertising. You’re in the business of creative business solutions, and that approach is timelier than ever. Ads can be overly clever, precious, and self-interested; business solutions are smart, holistically developed, and focused on driving sales. 

If you have this as your focus, you don’t ever get into those self-involved, outdated debates about logo sizes, fonts, jokes, etc. You don’t talk about design and layout like they’re languages the client can’t understand. You really listen to clients and start to understand the real business challenges and goals that are behind your communications programs. When you do this, you may find new ways to help drive growth and meet goals that have nothing to do with traditional advertising.

2. Collaboration makes ideas better (including with clients).
You have to believe that no idea is born perfect — they all need a collaborative push and continuous optimization.  This means that clients help make ideas better as well. And even when you don’t like the content of the comment, your team’s efforts to develop solutions will no doubt improve the ideas, the work, and the outcome.

3. The work can’t be called “great” if it doesn’t work. 
If it doesn’t work, if it doesn’t move the needle, if it doesn’t achieve your objectives, then it cannot be deemed “great creative,” pure and simple. Yes, there are tons of factors beyond the control of the communications program — and many campaigns fail due to in-market dynamics that a) couldn’t be predicted or b) are way beyond its purview. Nevertheless, calling campaigns that don’t achieve their goals “great” is just an apology. View greatness as something that is achieved, not granted subjectively.

Conversely, your agency (and especially anyone with a title that includes the word “Creative” in it) should embrace and fall in love with efficient-yet-ugly work as well. Email, search copy, and lead-gen forms are all just as important and just as “creative” as Super Bowl ads. The sooner everyone gets that, and the quicker everyone gets good at these things, the better.

4. Focus on the bottom of the funnel.
Advertising has traditionally viewed its role at the top of the purchase funnel, driving awareness, familiarity, and positive opinion.  However, with their average length of tenure down to less than 23 months, CMOs know they need to demonstrate in-market success before the sand in the hourglass empties. In these times, there’s nothing more important than driving low-funnel consideration and shopping activity. In addition, the bottom of the funnel is where analytics will help you track performance and optimize your plan.
 
Every program you develop should think through consumer activity throughout the purchase funnel and seek to convert consumers along the path towards purchase and re-purchase, un-blocking roadblocks along the way. This will have the combined effect of a) helping connect your creative solutions to actual purchases and b) demonstrating to your clients your unwavering interest in their bottom line.

5. Be maniacal about measurement and Return-On-Investment.
Don’t wait for your client to measure the results of the campaign or evaluate its success or failure — begin the process yourselves. Start every project asking the question, “What problems are we solving?” Set up in advance what your program’s goals are, determine what and how you’ll track them, and set up regular updates. Put someone in charge of timely (read: daily) updates and tracking. And don’t just celebrate and report when you’ve crushed your objectives — be equally outspoken when you’re below-goal, and use these experiences as learning and improvement opportunities.

Demand of yourselves a continual striving for improvement of performance. Never give up on finding new, fresh approaches and vehicles to try — even if the client isn’t asking for them. And never execute any aspect of a campaign just because it’s cool.

6. Extend your focus to the point-of-sale.
No matter who your day-to-day contacts are with the client, broaden your connections and relationships to those closest to the sale and to where the client makes its money. In other words, amplify your contacts with and understanding of the sales force, the dealers, the store managers, salespeople, etc. These are the folks closest to the consumer and who know the nitty gritty about the marketplace. You can often find serious insights that can help drive communications. Plus, broadening your agency’s constituency is never a bad thing.

For example, our Porsche Field team’s dealer visits led to the insight that the dealership could be intimidating, even to our most likely prospects. This was the kernel that led us to a test-drive program called “First Mile,” that was designed to attract prospects with a low-risk, no-pressure driving opportunity.

7. Display urgency, but radiate calm.
In these days, clients won’t abide by a laid-back approach to anything. They want to see partners who are restless, constantly dissatisfied, and near neurotically driven to uncover issues or problems before they happen. However, don’t confuse passion with panic. A client wants to know you’ve got it under control; that you’ll always be calm under pressure. And that, despite your restless, driven behavior, you’re rock-solid and dependable.

8. Communication includes listening.
One thing I know for sure is that no one knows all the answers; solving for complex business issues takes the right team, collaborating across disciplines, titles and companies. That includes agency and client. You can’t be effective without co-authorship, co-creation, and co-ownership with clients. So refrain from selling anything — discuss and listen to feedback. Because another thing I know for sure is that ideas have a way of getting better that way.

So you should try to work in a process that features early collaboration — e.g., brainstorms, tissue sessions, and “Big Idea” workshops — in order to get client buy-in and commitment on broad ideas first. Also recognize that “listening” means going beyond just hearing the words the clients are speaking.  You have to attune your hearing to the music behind the lyrics, as well…

9. Always test.
This needs to be a mantra during the development of every initiative and project you develop — “What ideas or variables are we testing?” Testing helps optimize your performance now as well as helping to drive better results for future efforts.
 
10. Nothing beats a face-to-face.
Everyone has tightened the spigot on expenses and, naturally, airfare, hotels, and dinners are a place to look. However, make sure you regularly head to out-of-town clients’ offices. It’s worth the investment to look a client in the eye, to feel the buzz at the offices, to walk the halls and make the rounds, and to grab some social time, if possible, as well.  It’s the relationship building and insight gathering that drives smarter work now and better relationships later.
 
As we all know, the new marketing world is a demanding place — and it demands that agencies adapt and change their approaches in managing and keeping clients. Nevertheless, adapting to this new business-focused, results-oriented mindset will deliver big opportunities for long-term gain. Have you uncovered a new normal you’d like to share? Please weigh in.


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Michael Baer has over 20 years experience as a marketing and advertising leader and innovator.  Michael is also the developer of "Stratecution," a new way to think about marketing in the digitally-led "new normal." He's passionately blogging about his beliefs at Michael Baer's Stratecution Stories.
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