Jackie Holt, Managing Partner at BJL, looks at how trust is built and nurtured in the agency-client relationship.
I frequently find myself telling clients that the agency-client relationship is a lot like a marriage. The logic is simple: it’s an intense, often longstanding relationship, where you need to have similar values and ambitions to each other and a mutual willingness to listen. Like a marriage, it’s also vital that the agency-client relationship is built on trust.
But as commercial pressures intensify in our fast-paced world, is it becoming harder for agencies and clients to take that leap of trust? Having had experience on both the client-side and agency-side, one trend I’ve witnessed throughout my career has been the steady squeeze on everyone’s time.
In the days before everything was done over email, marketing people of all stripes had much more time for thought and consideration on a given project. Now we live in a world of real time, responsive marketing where clients expect similarly fast responses from agencies to support on their latest commercial challenges.
Build the foundations.
So as the pressure mounts on time and budgets, how can we ensure that trust remains at the heart of the agency-client relationship?
It all starts with clarity, which means beginning any relationship on an open and transparent footing. Creative agencies operate in a world that’s quite intangible. We’re trying to come up with creative solutions that are right for the brand and that no one else has done before, so everything is subjective. There’s no single right answer – just a judgement call as to what’s best.
Building trust in that judgement requires an open dialogue with as many senior people on the client-side as possible. When agencies ask for ‘stakeholder engagement sessions’ with senior executives, we’re not doing it to create more work or to make more money. It’s an essential step in making sure we understand everyone’s views, concerns and ambitions.
Taking on board that stakeholder input – and being transparent about it right from the start – is essential if there’s to be trust in the agency-client relationship.
Buying into an agency culture.
It can often be helpful to formalise these ways of working at the outset, though I’ve always found that developing personal relationships is the most important factor in building strong partnerships over the long term.
If you look at the big agency-client success stories down the years, where brands and agencies have worked together very effectively for a long time, there’s always been a personal attachment to the fortunes of the brand on both sides. It’s not just a business relationship; both sides feel equal ownership of the success of that brand.
And the greatest successes come when the relationship isn’t just rooted in one individual but is maintained across the whole agency. Indeed, when client-side people return to work with us after they’ve moved to new roles at other brands, they don’t just come back for one individual – they’re buying into a complete agency culture.
A willingness to keep the relationship fresh, so that neither side becomes too comfortable, is also crucial to ensuring that both agencies and clients continue to challenge each other in pursuit of the best work.
Time and budgetary pressures have brought client-side procurement teams into the mix in a much bigger way in recent years. Ultimately procurement is there to ensure their marketing department is making the right investments, so it’s up to the agency to demonstrate that commercial acumen. Procurement teams, meanwhile, need to understand the complex, often intangible ways that marketing and branding adds value to the business.
It’s sometimes the case that people in agencies don’t realise the pressures that client-side people are under from their own boards. Understanding those pressures is important if agencies are to better support their clients and minimise friction in the relationship.
In the end, I’ve always found that people work best in an environment of encouragement. Regardless of the pressures, ‘big sticks’ or shouting at people don’t work as tactics, because people simply lose their passion and commitment. It’s much better when the pressure is shared and the client and agency are united in solving a problem as a committed team of people.
That’s a true sign of mutual trust, and it invariably leads to the best work.