This originally appeared in Agri-Marketing Magazine, May-June 2020.
By Len Kahn
I remember sitting in the office of my first client circa 1996, the country manager of a multinational animal health company. We were discussing our contract, and he popped up with, “Here’s the bottom line – if I make my bonus, you get to keep you job.” This seemed like a hard-core, mercenary way of looking at what I thought was supposed to be a partnership or relationship built on pillars of trust, quality of work, responsiveness and loyalty – in short, all the things agencies would like to be hired for.
Over time, I have come to understand the wisdom in this proposition. Working backwards, as agencies if we excel at our jobs, we propel our clients towards their business objectives. And if they meet their objectives, we have a high likelihood of being retained. Easy!
At its core, a successful relationship between an agency and client centres on business results. Agencies are hired for one basic reason – to move the bottom line. Whether that’s building brand equity or attaining annual or quarterly sales results, this is how we are ultimately measured. Conversely, like a sports team that decides to fire its coach after a losing season, when companies miss their number it’s far easier to change agencies than fire staff. Agencies know this going in – when our clients miss their targets we are the last to know, and first to go.
Having said that, there are a number of other factors that influence the relationship between a client and their agency.
Shared values. One of my mentors, Kim McConnell, believes that shared values ultimately drive not only the agency/client relationship, but also relationships between individuals within the agency. Often challenging to define, values underpin everything clients and agencies do together. Are we conservative or risk takers? Is creative excellence more important than timely delivery? Innovation versus reliability? The list goes on. Agencies that share values with their clients tend to have longer, more rewarding relationships. And agencies that retain individuals with shared values have more positive cultures, which also translates into a better experience for the client.
Great work. Somewhat lost in today’s transactional, digital environment is that agencies have always been hired for one main thing – creativity. Consistently delivering box-busting ideas, and executing them with a high degree of excellence, is paramount for successful agency/client relationships. A company’s sales force can be an agency’s greatest challenge or most significant ally. For them – it all comes down to the work. If we make their jobs easier – and help them hit their bonuses — we win.
Responsiveness and flexibility. Although not the sexy part of the business, delivering work and responding to requests in a timely manner are effective ways to build strong and enduring relationships with clients. In the agri-food sector, this is not a ‘nice to do’, it’s a ‘must have’. With high stakes and narrow windows, delivering on strategy, on time and on budget are all key to better, stronger and longer-lasting client relationships.
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