Don’t Replace it, Fix it

About three months back, I received a call from a client who wanted to replace their lead agency. When asked why, I didn’t get a convincing reply. I suspected a relationship breakdown, and suggested fixing it. The client was hesitant, but was persuaded. He asked for results in six weeks. That was fourteen weeks back.

I started by speaking to both teams, separately at first and then with the main contacts from both sides together. Using an evaluation tool, I was able to demonstrate to client management that there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the relationship – business was doing well, and there was no breakdown of trust. They had merely lost interest, and felt it was time they moved on.
That specific partnership appears to be out of the woods now, and while they are not (yet) talking about additional assignments or deepening the relationship, they have each taken specific steps to build it back to a strong partnership. Clearly, something’s worked for them.

This was no isolated case.

The response to a deteriorating relationship is usually to fix the tangible, measurable aspects – better briefs, more focused KPIs, more frequent business assessments etc. These might be helpful, but usually are not the issue. If they were, someone would’ve talked about it already. The fact that no one has, points to the real issue.

Each agency-client partnership is unique, defined by a variety of factors. At its very foundation, it depends on the people involved to keep it strong. It’s a complex mash-up of variables. So there’s no single approach or best-practice to fix it if something goes awry. Nor would I presume to supply such a process now.

I will however propose five effective steps that will help ensure an existing agency-client partnership remains healthy and productive. It’s easy and can be implemented right away.

Keep meetings exciting: Remember what it was when this partnership first began? Keep that excitement going. This requires the agency to consistently demonstrate brilliance, and the client to be open to challenging ideas and approaches. Keep meetings face-to-face. If not all of them, then atleast every third meeting.

Focus on the important questions: Keep reminding each other of why the partnership began in the first place, of what the two organisations hoped to achieve together. Ignore egos, personalities, personal milestones and distracting agendas. Stay focussed on the brand. At the very basic level, ask your agency what else they think you should be doing. Agencies will understand a lot more by asking the client what keeps them awake at night.

Take ownership and responsibility: This depends entirely on the two people who are in regular contact. Ensure the agency / client sides of the equation do not go beyond meeting reports and action points. The partnership works wonders if you see it as one team with a shared vision, interdependence and intertwined destiny. Finger-pointing and joint ownership have an inverse relationship. Potent stuff.

Share fears and misgivings: Make sure the key people on both sides (certainly the ones in regular contact) share any concerns they might have about the work being done. This could apply to anything – new product development, research, advertising, media usage, shares, strategy, manpower etc. You just might be able to identify an issue before it explodes. At the very least, someone might be able to address your fears.

Keep everyone engaged: Often senior management or support departments meet each other only at annual planning events or big presentations. More often, while desirable, might not always be possible. Find ways of keeping all levels of both organisations engaged in what’s going on. This might require extra effort and time set aside for the purpose, but its impact on the partnership will be invaluable.

It is my sincere belief that the decision to change your agency should not be taken lightly. It is expensive and can have an adverse impact on immediate business. Estimates vary, but most seem to agree on about 6 months’ worth of fees; and the added loss of momentum, familiarity, team spirit, established processes etc

There can be only two reasons for not continuing with your existing agency – when you have unimpeachable proof of (a) financial irregularity, or (b) breach of confidence. But in most cases, a client is better off fixing a relationship than starting a new one.

If you’re experiencing issues with your agency and would like advice on fixing it, get in touch.


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