This article is by Lisa Colantuono, co-partner of AAR Partners, an agency search consultancy. It first appeared in Forbes on September 20, 2012.
Chemistry is vital but compatibility is the core of a successful relationship, and when relationships have both it sets the stage for enduring partnerships that create some case-study results. Yet the average tenure for many client-agency relationships range anywhere from four to six years. Why?
AAR Partners recently received a call from a spirits company inquiring about our service to manage a review. Whenever we receive these calls, our policy is to ask, “Why are you considering an agency search?” The intention behind the question is to evaluate if the search is truly necessary. In this case, the potential client responded, “It’s five years. It’s time.” The hidden meaning behind that answer is usually one of relationship problems, change in client and/or agency leadership, poor results and/or quite often flat creative.
Just like in personal relationships, divorce has become commonplace in business relationships. The toll on lives in terms of behavioral and societal difficulties defy measurement, and when it comes to business break-ups, there is a deep economic impact for both sides. Aside from the lost income to the agency, the client also suffers a loss by needing to go through a learning curve with a new agency aside from the two to three months it typically takes to go through the process of a properly managed agency review.
So how do some client-agency relationships endure for two, three or even 10 times the industry average like, say, General Mills and Saatchi & Saatchi since 1928, or Wrigley and BBDO since the 1933? They don’t consider themselves “client-agency relationships.” Instead, they consider themselves “friends all contributing to a successful business partnership.” And it all starts with the CMO as the keystone of the friendship.
Here are the key characteristics of successful relationships and why CMOs must be part of a new agency relationship starting with the agency search:
Friendship. Strong friendships create staying power. In the business world, strong relationships create enduring partnerships. They not only enjoy rolling up their sleeves at the same conference room table, but also breaking bread together. So what does this have to do with the CMO being part of the review process from the start?
People like people who have similar personalities, work ethics and integrity. Of course, all are necessary for successful relationships but hard to determine if the CMO is not in the room. “Fit is everything. At the end of the day, your agency and CMO must have a deep personal connection that leads to transparency and trust. Their personalities and working styles have to not only be compatible, but also need to be perfectly aligned,” according to Amy Muntz, president of Neiman.
Communication. As obvious as this may seem, constant communication is key to any successful relationship, whether it is personal or business, and it must be solid from the start. Those who are able to openly express their thoughts, insights, hesitations and concerns instead of burying frustrations always have a way of coming out at some ground-breaking position. Again, this starts with the CMO. The CMO who articulates the vision not only for the company but also for the brand is what separates the good CMOs from the great. If the CMO isn’t part of the agency-review process from the start, there is a tremendous missed opportunity to ensure that everyone on both the client and agency side are on the same page. If not, that vision can be subject to interpretation and in danger of not being translated into transactions in the end.
There are often times when CMOs feel that they will empower their team to manage the review process and they will be part of the final pitch as an “objective third party.” There is a lot of value behind leading but not micromanaging. However, we’ve come to realize that if you don’t come to the first meeting, you should not go to the last. “In theory, it is great to give authority to the team who works on the day-to-day agency relationship, but sometimes those decisions are overturned later in the process by the CMO, therefore turning the process on its head, which can be demoralizing for the marketing and agency team,” says Barbara Stefanis-Isreal, senior VP and director of marketing for MARC USA.
Collaboration. Great collaborative efforts come from great chemistry, and great chemistry must be determined from the start, which is why CMOs should be part of chemistry meetings scheduled at the start of the process. “Marketers are often quick to stress collaboration both from and within their agencies. Yet, they sometimes fail to collaborate within their own marketing departments,” says Michael Palma, president of The Palma Group. Chemistry meetings are a key opportunity to evaluate agency philosophy and culture, approach to business and creative solutions, as well as team dynamics within and between the client/agency teams. CMOs who arrive only for the final decision are in jeopardy of making a subjective decision based solely on creative instead of a comprehensive decision regarding the entire process based on research, strategic thinking, integrated business solutions and measurement. It also sets the tone for a non-collaborative relationship that’s often the set-up for a short-lived agency relationship.
Client-agency teams must be in sync from the start, and that begins with having the CMO in the room. They set the stage, share the vision, define the role of the marketing team and establish expectations. Scott Goodson, Chairman of StrawberryFrog, says, “CMOs should dig into the team and experience first-hand how they come up with strategic and creative excellence, how they think on their feet, how they react to change.”
That sense of security so vital for both parties in the relationship? It’s dependent on the CMO being part of the process from the start.