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October 1, 2003
How to Win the Relationship Game

While you are constantly trying to expand your business (offense) you must constantly try to grow and maintain your existing business (defense). How do you achieve that balance in order to sustain long-standing agency/client relationships? How do you win the relationship game?

The Agency/Client Playing Field

The advertising industry continues to ratchet downward in terms of the amount of years a client and agency relationship continues. I suspect the same could be said for a number of industries, but I can speak best about my own. Clients today have more pressure on them than ever before. They are also playing offense and defense at the same time, which creates new challenges for the ad agency. Economic pressures of recent and past have resulted in downsizing programs that have significantly reduced staff, decreased budgets and has put a greater emphasis on short-term thinking. In most industries the business model has been pushed into a maze of channel conflict that has become a mix of compete, comply and cooperate, all at the same time. Can you feel the stress? Bottom line? clients have less time, less staff, less money and less patience. And every competing agency is knocking on your client's door more than ever.

As agencies, we have the same issues. And that's aside from continuing consolidation that is driving mergers and acquisitions of cultures that are struggling to figure out exactly what or who they are. So how in the world can we keep and expand client relationships with all the surrounding chaos?

I think the answer is in the problem. We need to find the pressure points and attack them head-on. Let's play offense.

What Team are you Putting on the Field?

How's the current agency team performing? Do you have some soft spots in the organization? Do you view your staff as winning performers? Do you have any extremely talented individuals that require frequent attitude adjustments? If your answer to any of these questions is counter to what it should be, deal with it now. Remember, the enemy within the walls will do more damage than the enemy outside the walls. Besides, our industry is competitive enough. Any staff weaknesses or attitude problems need to be dealt with immediately or they become a drag coefficient on the entire organization. Beyond that, the market is full of talented and committed individuals looking for jobs. Don't sacrifice one for the other.

If you don't have the best people how do you expect to win? Donny Deutsch has been known to say, "It's the people stupid, you hire the best you win, you don't you lose, it's that simple." Makes sense doesn't it? We are in a people business; clients hire us and keep us because we add value and work as a team. Strong client/agency relationships always transcend the client/vendor speak.

There's no substitute for smart people with a passion for the business and a passion to succeed. It's the engine that drives the success of everything in life. The amount of stress in this business is grinding and relentless. Having a love and passion for it helps soften some of the pain during the tougher times. Clients will always respect intelligent, insightful advice coming from a person with conviction. People are the key to long standing relationships between clients and agencies. Put your best team on the field and you have a pretty decent shot of scoring some real points. Attack your weaknesses or someone else will!

Read the Playbook

Mind the business: It's a business. It's about your client's bottom line and making a profit, not winning awards for them. They need to know you understand this because the perspective of many clients is that agency folks are in it for themselves. While advertising is a large part of what we do, it represents only a fraction of their day. So understand their world and help them where there are opportunities. Treat the business as if it's your own and be honest in making recommendations. If you're wrong, admit it. Everyone makes mistakes; but do it from the standpoint of knowing the category, knowing the competition, and knowing the trends of the industry. There's no pretending or faking it. You either know your stuff or you don't and they won't trust you until you do. Based on this knowledge, you'll be able to make the soundest proposals and understand where opportunities lie to grow an account. Never stop learning and asking questions. Never forget that clients eat sleep and drink their categories and are the best source to learn from—so remember when you do offer advice it's done from a humble mindset. In summary, clients want their agency people to know business and strategy—not hand-holding paper-pushers.

You Gotta Grow to Win!

Look critically at your players just like any professional coach would, and determine what you need in the way of the best athlete. Once you are honest with yourself in identifying the criteria needed for your Team, you can begin to instill more confidence, trust, and long term value in the agency/client relationship.

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The Iron City has a golden creative shop, and Michael Brunner is the driving force. Since 1989 Blattner Brunner has grown from $20 to $120 million in billings by creating advertising that re-energizes brands, rejuvenates bottom lines, and wins awards. 
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