How often have we heard the well-worn sentiment of ‘perfect partners’ – tomato and basil, ying and yang, Fred and Ginger? For me, this romantic perfection is not a reality. Far more interesting are those partnerships that challenge each other – risotto and strawberries, the ANC Youth league and the South African Communist Party, Homer and Marge. It’s not perfect but the union amplifies mutual benefits. Imagine a set of knitting needles and wool – how do you achieve your mission without one or other?

These have been the thoughts that have occupied me at inconvenient times over the past few weeks, particularly with reference to a vital brand relationship, that between the brand owner and the supplier – client and agency.

When clients treat agencies like vendors, or agencies treat clients like they are not experts, the relationship or the work it produces is never optimal.
Having started my career as a client at Unilever before spending several years on the agency side both in design and marketing insight & consulting, I have been ‘on both sides of the fence’. But, I remain true to one view: When clients treat agencies like vendors, or agencies treat clients like they are not experts, the relationship or the work it produces is never optimal.

An agency that is only allowed to dip in and out of the client’s world never gets to contribute strategically or tactically, because it doesn’t know the client’s business well enough (nor the client its).

For example, when I started working, there was one marketing manager at a brand with a tiny budget who took the time to inspire the agency with a phenomenal briefing experience (think helicopter and fine-dining adventure) along with a review of brand strategy. The agency financial director was heard to say ‘Because you connected us to your strategy, you command a disproportionate amount of agency head space for your budget’. He was not upset, he felt rewarded because his team were stimulated so went the extra mile and turned things around faster and the marketing manager got a fantastic on-strategy product. Laduma!

For some clients, the issue is about trust, and they hide behind the word ‘confidential’ as in ‘The project is confidential; we should exclude as many people from the process as possible’. I have learnt that trust can make or break relationships, and affect the profitability of the outcome.

As a young assistant brand manager, I thought ‘confidential’ meant ‘narrow-sharing’. I remember delivering a pack mock-up to the factory only to hear it would not work on the line. Can you hear the flushing sound? Money and time down the drain – but I’d learnt that keeping people out of the loop didn’t further the proverbial cause. Instead, trusting each other with relevant confidential information means you start the journey from the same point improving chances of success.

Sharing the brand’s strategic goals can ensure that clients and agencies grow brands together instead of delivering superficial communication that might win awards but doesn’t ring the till.
True collaboration happens when both sides value the other’s expertise. In the same way as I am not the expert on my client’s brand detail because I do not eat, breathe and otherwise their volume shares, pricing or consumer hotline info daily, so are clients not expert in mine because their daily tasks do not include designing logos, running focus groups or writing copy.

We each bring something to the table and true magic happens when we believe in each other’s abilities, agree roles, responsibilities and empower each other. Yes, we’re all experienced and have our opinions – healthy debate is critical. Being brave enough to challenge each other, discard what is not working and knowing each other well enough to know what could be exceptional is what we should be aiming for.

Collaborating on strategy and sharing the brand’s strategic goals can ensure that clients and agencies grow brands together instead of delivering superficial communication that might win awards but doesn’t ring the till.

It’s time to see more partnerships with relevant parties involved earlier in key processes and to see more relationships based on mutual respect for respective skill areas.

If we both have our eye on (and perhaps have a stake in) achieving aligned goals imagine the possibilities.

Fair Exchange is a column on business relationships, written by Erna George, Business Director at Added Value for MarkLives.

Photo credits: Added Value

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