Fair Exchange: Equal benefits
by Erna George January is usually when we all consider how we’d like to do things differently in 2014. But, before we start planning the year ahead, evaluating the year behind us is key.
In much the same way as opening the gifts we receive during the year-end festive season brings us joy, receiving and giving feedback in an open, transparent and fair process comprising two-way appraisal can bring and sustain mutually beneficial relationships.
Effective appraisal should be two-way; it should be conducted at least once a year, if not more regularly; and it should not get personal. But herein lies the rub: it often isn’t and often is.
Appraisals are not always two-way processes. Sometimes, it is only clients providing feedback about what they want or need. When this is the case, it reminds me of a teacher-pupil relationship.
How effective is this really? Would it not be better for both to agree to ways of working, expectations and useful judgment criteria for evaluation at relevant points?
Maybe not. A colleague pointedly asked if the agency (on the receiving end of the pay check) would be as honest about client shortcomings.
Admittedly, complete openness may feel too risky. But, if this is a long-standing relationship, it is in the agency’s interest to foster a relationship of mutual respect and tolerance for different points of view.
Given this, an effective appraisal process would probably be one that provides for mutual quantitative evaluation which is comprehensive and measures elements that are less personal, while still incorporating qualitative evaluation and discussion to ensure context.
I have also discovered that appraisals are not always commonplace. Some clients expect the agency to simply keep doing its job, while some agencies pay more attention to great output, rather than client satisfaction.
But how does a relationship stay on track if communication is only about the task at hand?
Further, often appraisals are relegated to close to or at the end of the year — the big review of how things have gone. Perhaps there is an opportunity for evaluation to be more regular.
Says Rowan Eva of Ogilvy & Mather Cape Town, “I am a big fan of 360 feedback between agency and client, but on a more frequent basis than on an annual basis. In my experience, feedback on a regular basis (weekly/monthly/quarterly) is not only healthy but it allows you to address concerns/problems/gripes immediately before they fester and snowball into something bigger.”
I agree: in the same way that people-development discussions do not wait for a big surprise reveal at year end, it is far better to address issues in the moment.
Imagine these feedback sessions were less formal and more about continual improvement — regular project-based appraisals in addition to the formal annual process. This could help ensure that, despite changing environment or revised scope, there would be clear understanding of expectations from both sides of roles and responsibilities.
When the appraisal process highlights problems with the relationship, discussion between the agency and client is seen to be far more useful than getting an industry watchdog to mediate externally, as it may just patch instead of foster or cement the relationship.
Most of the conversations I’ve had around this, as well as the articles and research papers I’ve read, recommend that both parties evaluate the working relationship, output delivery and progress achieved regularly to maintain relationships. It’s suggested that every effort be made to resolve problems before proceeding to terminating a contract, resigning or resorting to a pitch.
Not the only reason
However, performance issues may not be the only reason for rocky relationships.
Whether it’s preoccupation with other brand issues or new accounts, lack of listening or bad chemistry, sometimes personalities clash and the connection between the two key persons from each side can make or break the relationship. Sometimes business operations change and there are no mutual values or benefits. One party wants premium delivery at lowest cost, one may simply want an easy paycheck; so there will be circumstances under which the relationship is not the best for both. And then parting ways is the best way forward.
Long-term relationships benefit the health of the brand, and working at improving the existing client-agency relationship can save both parties a significant amount of time and money in a pitch process, or for the client to find a new agency.
Familiarising a new agency with the brand and history ins-and-outs takes time and, while this transition happens, momentum can be lost. New relationships take time to generate positive results.
This does not mean that change is not necessary, as sometimes a small or suitable change in the team or processes can yield definite improvements. Working together to identify the required changes is often a less costly, faster and ultimately smarter move.
While separations are part of life, maintaining and building long-term relationships via ongoing collaboration and feedback is beneficial and ensures:
- Continued understanding of broader corporate and strategic issues by your agency partner.
- Early identification and resolution of problematic issues.
- Development of trust and enhanced communication necessary to achieve both the brand and agency objectives.
- Processes are continuously improved — from both sides.
Deliver a clear road map
Greater clarity will deliver a clear road map, better team dynamics and more fulfillment of brands’ objectives as well as upping personal fulfillment — wins all round.
Erna George is the business director heading up quality research at brand development and marketing insight consultancy Added Value. She works with diverse brands and categories — from FMCG, alcohol and agriculture to financial services and entertainment — in countries across many geographies, including South Africa, Mozambique, Nigeria, Kenya, India, Philippines and Brazil. She contributes the monthly “Fair Exchange” column about business relationships and partnerships in adland to MarkLives.
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