Fair Exchange: Reviewing client-agency relationships for growth
by Erna George (@) Open discussions and feedback in the moment are critical for any agency-client relationship, so that the year-end review is a summation of the year and simply a closing of the loop.
Entering into any appraisal or review, joint or not, may feel daunting: these days, reviews tend to be less subjective and more comprehensive, with 360-degree feedback from multiple parties or specialist insight/consultant agencies to conduct the exploration. The way around this is to ensure no surprises at a single yearend review session.
However, many may doubt the process as they view that the power sits with the client. The challenge is how to balance the power so that everyone gets the most of the session and the relationship is strengthened.
What’s good for the goose is good for the gander
The first consideration is that you need to find a way to apply the rule that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. This is not a one-way communication or feedback session and cannot be hindered by the principle of the customer is king. The focus must be about uncovering better ways of working and optimising processes so that agency teams are inspired to deliver more.
A fear-based setting could make the agency feel less stable about its future and therefore less honest in its feedback. A cautious agency neither challenges the status quo nor pushes boundaries towards innovative and excellent solutions. These are not agency reviews. The opportunity is a client-agency review — a review of the relationship, the process and the outputs from the joint efforts. This is where a formal questionnaire helps.
This questionnaire is completed by both sides of the team (at all levels), and collated and analysed by an expert researcher to determine a report of the results. Having just used a similar process, I can vouch for it and what really worked is a level-playing field created by the same questionnaire completed on both sides, using a combination of absolute scoring for a conclusive view and open-ended questions for clarification. This ‘facilitated’ output is somewhat like a moderator for a research group and helps ensure feedback is building, even if the end point is a parting of ways. Both voices heard equally for best results.
Not the remit of senior leaders only
Secondly, you must think through who is involved. Reviews should not be the remit of senior leaders only.
Assistant brand managers and junior account executives are part of the relationship. While creative and strategy are key, sometimes it is the administration that puts a damper on efficiency — timelines not delivered, invoices processed late, contact reports not delivered so actions are missed, while smaller support issues are chatted about in corridors and may fester and become significant frustrations.
Involving the junior team also invites them to learn about how good relationships are built and judged beyond the admin details. Learning both perspectives, and what builds and breaks successful relationships, makes for better briefs, better interactions and better clients. Share the process to ensure good learnings throughout the organisations and that the relationship is clear for the full team.
While there could be many more recommendations, my final one is about face-to-face discussion of the review. Scores and a few words of written feedback are too easy to hide behind and may be worse than no review at all. The only time a review is useful is if learning and clear action points come out of it. Email and social media have reduced the need for personal interaction. A quick WhatsApp replaces a quick call as an update or email to provide in-depth reverts. These cursory exchanges are detached and do not foster relationship-building; they may even be destructive as it is so easy to type a note in anger.
We are people, dealing with other people. The more we practice giving and sharing feedback, the better we will be at it, and the big reveal on how the relationship is going doesn’t have to wait for the yearend review. While there may not always be significant issues, there is always room to grow or to understand how to exploit what is working to an even greater extent. Imagine putting the good stuff on steroids…unlocking the best of the best.
As feedback becomes more commonplace and easy, relationships will deepen, the agency team will learn more about the brand and will be more inspired, and clients will continuously get more from their agency — a positive virtuous circle.
Principles to keep in mind
Remember some principles:
- Level the playing field for great dialogue and open two-way feedback
- Include members from all levels in the team for learning, and
- Get rid of the technical wall and connect face-to-face
Keep in mind that it is the team that delivers the result of great advertising, promotions that grow volumes or packaging that grabs shoppers’ attention. A review of the team dynamics and how each party is doing in the partnership may only ensure that everyone’s game is lifted.
After starting at Unilever in a classical marketing role, Erna George (@) explored the agency side of life, first as a partner at Fountainhead Design, followed by the manic and inspiring world of consultancy at Added Value. She has returned to client-side, leading the marketing team in the Cereals, Accompaniments & Baking Division at Pioneer Foods. Her monthly “Fair Exchange” column on MarkLives concerns business relationships and partnerships in marketing and brandland.