by Erna George (@edgeo23) In this season of giving and gifting, let’s have a discussion of about how to engage and get more out of partners and, most especially, our creative agency teams.

At the time of writing, I’d just spent a few days on a shoot and had some quality time with the agency team, connecting and just chatting about ‘stuff’. Some of this covered working together and how to engage and inspire creative teams. So how do we get the most from relationship and a willingness to go further together?

People are far from rational

In this discussion, Dan Ariely came up, the author of Predictably Irrational, which reviews economics in a different light. Ariely’s main thesis is that people are far from rational and many times will act against their best ‘monetary’ interests. He shows via various experiments that many people are driven more by social norms, and that this may often be more important than money (market norms) [Source: Predictably Irrational]. The value assigned to bartering of skills for doing good or for working on something breakthrough can’t always be measured in rands and cents. Money is a tough conversation for many.

A great example provided is imagine going to dinner at a mate’s place and, for whatever reason, you forget or don’t have time to get a bottle of wine or flowers and rather hand over to the host R80 as equivalent. How would you feel as the host? There is value assigned to you taking the time and making the effort to select a gift, rather than feeling as if all your effort was worth four brown notes.

The trade-off becomes an interesting opportunity. Think about relationships in nature with a symbiotic focus, such as the plover bird that feeds by cleaning the crocodile’s teeth. It’s the same in friendships; not everything is counted and tallied back. We know that, in return for a favour here and there, there is the value of sharing time, getting a strong supporter in tough times and more.

Yearn for great projects

Assigning a monetary value is not the only way to go. From my discussions with various agency people, creative teams yearn for great projects that provide the opportunity to make their mark, be it for social benefit or self-development. Think of the Jenna Lowe campaign run by MullenLowe in 2014.

Its creative team ran the campaign to encourage South Africans to sign up as organ donors. It was not a campaign the agency profited from but employees were energised and there was an excess of ideas, copy and mechanics. The buzz in the agency was palpable. The conversation of “we have an amazing opportunity to change people’s lives with this campaign but we need you to give some of your free time and amazing creative genius” is so much better than “we have a project but we can only pay you 10% of your usual rate”. The first conversation builds spirit; the second undervalues people’s time. The opportunity is to make your requests inviting and motivating.

While being inspirational is key if you need a freebie, it’s almost more necessary in the daily grind of keeping the relationship positive and appealing to agency and, more especially, creative teams. Offering the possibility of working on a big breakthrough project or a project with significant social impact may deliver so much more value to the people working on your business. Making a difference and personal- or career-development (and perhaps a little fame) are great motivators. You need people to want to work on your account, so that commitment and energy levels are boundless. This way the fountain of good work will keep flowing. The freedom and platform to do great work may galvanise people into positive action and keep relationships strong.

The trick

Overall, the minute we start focusing upon costs and hours, the relationship is teetering upon the edge of disaster and inspiration dies. Bartering and exchanging have been with us for the longest time, well before cold hard cash — think about back in the caveman day, where all one had were one’s physical attributes, abilities and luck.

The trick is to find the ‘thing’ that offers personal value to the person. You’ll need to leverage the relationship at times but I’m in no way encouraging blatant abuse of your agencies and their hunger to do good work; I’m suggesting that finding a key to unlock the hunger to do good work benefits both parties. Moving conversations beyond just money means that the focus moves beyond what will sometimes feel like a disproportionately negative ROI. When teams put their heart and soul into a project and it’s rejected, it’s seldom that any amount of money can make up for this.

Budget permitting, consider allowing the odd small project that feeds agency creatives’ spirits, or give leeway on some lesser details. This keeps hope alive. Think carefully about what benefit you are offering with every brief and what creative freedom of expression may be granted.

The challenge

The challenge to clients is: how do we keep people who want to make an impact energised? Answering this encourages the giving and sharing beyond what is written in a contract.

Consider lessons from nature and caveman days, where counting tit for tat would not ensure survival and success.

  • Write briefs with objectives and language that appeal to ‘social norms’ to engender commitment and inspire
  • Determine what the ‘trade-off benefit’ is beyond money to maximise engagement
  • Give a little (and loosen the reins) to get a lot in return

You see, there is benefit in looking back and learning from the old days. Happy giving!

Note: Thanks to Kirk Gainsford for a great conversation and book recommendation!


Erna GeorgeAfter starting at Unilever in a classical marketing role, Erna George (@edgeo23) 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.

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