Client/agency partnerships in advertising are never set in stone
I once worked on a high-profile account at an agency where the team dedicated to it consisted of at least 30 people. Both the agency’s team and the client’s team were an ever-revolving cast of people, as was the client. It could be difficult and dysfunctional at times, but generally manageable.
After I worked there for a year or so, the CMO came to visit our agency one day and held a “town hall” style meeting with everyone on the team — AEs, creatives, traffic people, even production artists. And then he did something I haven’t seen again in my career: In five minutes, he articulated the brand and advertising strategy better than any creative brief ever did. Then he took any and all questions from the agency team about how to improve the process of working together.
I came away very impressed. Not at the strategy, but the fact that it even happened at all. The CMO visit that day didn’t mean we were “trusted partners” of the client. No, we were vendors, albeit significant ones. But meeting everyone who touched his business was important to him, and he appreciated what all of us were doing, He made many of us who toiled on that business feel a bit more valued.
These days, as people endlessly debate whether agencies ought to be treated like vendors or trusted partners, I wonder: Who gets to determine what role the agency will play in a client’s business? Are the terms “vendor” and “partner” meaningless these days? Are agencies always stuck in one role or other, with no hope of evolving?
A client/agency relationship is a continuous evolution. The first few projects set the tone for how the rest of it often goes. But in all phases, the client/agency relationship needs a level of trust on both sides, with client and agency feeling like they’re getting each other’s best work and the ability to honestly solve problems when they arise.
Here’s where it gets tricky. When so many agencies turn to freelancers for everything from creative to strategy to yes, recruiting, it’s no wonder clients see agencies as interchangeable. The clients rarely meet the people who are doing the actual day-to-day work, just the agency managers who take the credit, the blame, and the profits.
To be a true partner means an agency, and everyone in the agency who works on account, must have something at stake besides mere payment for services rendered. Profit sharing on an account or tying compensation to performance sound like nice ideas, but the reality is quite complex. Lots of corners can get cut to maximize profit. Not everyone in the agency shares in the profits. And in advertising, the best or most creative ideas aren’t necessarily the most profitable ones.
Still, much like a homeowner may take better care of a house than a renter would, there may be merit to pursuing true “ownership” of a client’s business. Everyone working on the business would know what’s at stake, and be rewarded if the account does well.
That may be too much to ask in today’s world. Although most agency people I know would move heaven and earth for an appreciative client, the revolving door in corporate America means true partnerships are rare. Even an agency touted as a “trusted partner” can be dumped on short notice. The best most of us can hope for is that we’re treated like valuable, if ultimately expendable, vendors.
But like my client of long ago, a little appreciation for the vendors can truly go a long way.
Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small.
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