The week before I completed my stint at J&J I was invited by my digital marketing agency to a fun event followed by lunch.  Much to my surprise the CEO of the agency honored me in front of about 25 people with a speech I will never forget.   The story he told was how the agency was revising its web site to include a section on being an effective client.  He then went on to say that as they built the section they modeled it after how I managed the relationship and drove the team.

Those last three words are the most important. This wasn’t all about how I’m a great guy, because those who have worked with me know that’s not always me (!!!).  The legacy of our relationship became how we saw and partnered with each other and how that led to the business results we achieved. It was about both the means and the end.

I’m not sure if I invented this term – probably not – but I tend to shun the term ROI and instead prefer to talk about what I call ROR, or Return on Resources.  Organizations make investments using all major resources; not just money, but time and people.  Those are the big three, and all three need to generate a return.  Agencies provide manpower in exchange for their fees; that manpower can create so much for your business if you learn to properly lead and partner.  Marketers tend to not do this well and the result is significant value left on the table for your business…and your career!   This post will address first the mindset and then the process to either tweak or overhaul your skills in managing one of your more critical relationships.

Mental adjustment A: agencies are more than just ‘the help’.

…although agencies realize that most times that’s the role they play; an extra body of resources on a thinly-staffed brand team.  What’s worse, agencies other than your primary ad agency usually have to report to the team’s most junior associate, someone with little understanding of or strength in relationship management.  Consider that if you relegate them to that level of importance, you are likely to cause a like-minded level of work.  Think of them as a trusted and valuable member of your team that must be included, managed, coached and inspired, just like any other internal stakeholder.  Do this at all levels.

Mental adjustment B: you own their performance.

If they screw up then you are likely over half the cause.  Become accountable for their success, and look inside to understand why they have failed.  (“Look inside”; see how this blog works?? Ha!)  You are causing little net progress if you look at agencies as a safe haven to assign blame…and then take the arduous yet senseless steps to replace them when you feel like nothing’s working.

Become embedded in each other’s business.

This happens more readily with your advertising agency, because they employ strategists and work with you on building the DNA of your brand from the research and data you have collected.  It has been my experience (especially when I worked in the U.S.) that ad agencies practically over-staff their teams, which in some cases contributes to a slow down in the process of ad and communication strategy development.  Separately, the PR, digital, internet and social media agencies tag along at the end of the food chain, waiting for scraps of information, direction, budget and general involvement.

Work to balance this inequity out a bit, especially in an age where non-traditional agencies can help create awareness and equity for your brand as well as the big ticket agencies can.  Pull them into meetings or invite them to lunch, get them energized about your brand mission and objectives and make them own your biggest opportunities and challenges.  You’ll find that not only do they know a lot about marketing in general but their inclusion motivates them to be regularly thinking about your business.  You reap the benefits because they will proactively share ideas, solutions and plans often times without direction or prompting.

It works the same way in reverse.  In a true partnership you will understand what agencies are trying to do and respect that they are running a business as well.  Their biggest issue is resource management and it would serve you well to be sensitive to that.  Don’t ask an agency to staff your account while you prefer to be coy about budgets and expected billing.  Also, respect that time is money for these folks.  I have a strict policy when it comes to pitching programs.   I tell my account team openly that I will not pay for activity that represents a reasonable amount of business development on their side.  At my discretion, however, I will pay an agency for their time to cover their costs of additional scoping or work that I think goes beyond a fundamental pitch.  I insist on it.  You can’t imagine the shock (and subsequent mileage) I get when I tell an agency I’m not moving forward but here’s a few shekels for your time.  Thanks.

Learn how to give insightful feedback and direction.

Whether you want to become a great boss or client, the skills are very similar, just applied differently.  Sadly, though, this is the area where marketers fail on the regular.  I couldn’t possibly begin to quantify the resources wasted by agencies who try to deliver what you want based on guesswork.  At its worst, their primary focus becomes managing you instead of delivering sound strategic thinking and programming.  This problem rears its head in three fundamental areas where feedback and direction are required:

1. Programming and creative presentations. Unless you decide to cross into the dark side and work for them, you will never realize that account teams spend the car ride back from your office poking fun at the terrible feedback you give them.  Designers have even started to publish memes of the senseless and confounding feedback they get.  To work for an agency you have to become adept at asking the right questions and deciphering the terrible code we marketers speak in order to deliver what you want.  Strive for clarity, insight and transparency in your approach to agencies, who will even partner with you to become proficient in how you direct them.  How? Well, that’s for another day….or we’ll need to take that up 1:1.  I can learn ya.

2. Shaping and championing ideas. Western economy is now based more and more on ideas and less and less on capital and labor.  Time for you to think about how you are turning your brand into an ideas economy.  Agencies frequently hear from marketers that they aren’t creative enough.  What they won’t tell you is that they bring you less and less out-of-the-box thinking because you don’t know how to help them make it viable.  And, even when you get there, you are not adept at selling internally to get innovative ideas off the ground.  Many times, agencies will default to ‘tried and true’ – despite all your complaining – because that’s all that can get traction.  You play a role in fixing that, although I realize you have the right to expect good business sense along with creativity.

3. Performance management.  At the relationship level, it all works the same as it would if you were managing your own team.  Ensure your agency knows how it is being evaluated, and then be disciplined about delivering frequent, meaningful feedback in both formal and informal settings.  If you give them clear and attainable targets, they’ll be inspired to hit ‘em.

Push them.

…and if you are really great at providing direction and are inspired to innovate and generate results you can get a lot out of your agencies. They LOVE people who ‘get it’ and are willing to go to bat internally for the great ideas they submit.  As a result, they will happily respond to a push from you as the brand rep.  Conversely, if you don’t occur as inspired, they will mail it in sometimes.  If that happens, feel free to call them on it and paint an objective and accurate picture of where they are falling short; they will respect you and up their game.

Teach them how to work with you.

Continuing our discussion about ROR: to agencies, time is also money.  Consequently, they are more than eager to get to where you need to go in the most efficient way if they can keep you happy in the process.  Take advantage of this opportunity and give them tips on how to conform to your personal quirks.   You can create a lot of win-wins on time while creating not only a productive but positive working relationship.

To illustrate, let me share some of, which aren’t always set in stone but can at least give you a flavor of how I educate agencies about how to get the most out of me:

  • I don’t like meeting before 10 so I can get a head start on my day
  • (If we must, an Americano puts me in a better mood. Just sayin)
  • Spend your time thinking and creating vs making me Powerpoint presentations.  I don’t care if your ideas are delivered orally, in hand drawn pictures or via a puppet show, find the most efficient way to make your point.  I’ll get it, and will see past the packaging.
  • Let’s change up the meeting locations to keep our minds open and to stimulate thinking. Conference and meeting rooms are typically at the bottom of my list.  (This led to a meeting at Six Flags, btw.  Good times)
  • If the meeting involves lunch, I like to eat healthy.  Creamy, bread-y, pasta-y things weigh down both mind and body
  • Always tell me what ideas I’m leaving on the table because of budget restraints.  You never know, you might be able to talk me into a higher spend

Don’t assign them responsibility for things you should (co-)own.

There are a number of examples here, but one of them is our dependence on agencies to build out the financials.  While it’s a fair question to ask an agency for business results in past executions of a tactic, you must remember that your brand and its overall strategy has more bearing on ROI than the channel through which you select to execute it.  In other words, financial performance of all marketing performance is largely unique to your brand, so you should be able to address the issue as well as they can.  Therefore, assume joint ownership for projection of returns; otherwise you will get something close to a canned answer from your account team.  Luckily for them, they know what you’re going to ask, so they have that particular ‘can’ at the ready.

Impress them; they know a lot of people.

I’m coming full circle here from my beginning lecture about treating them as equal partners.   In your mind, agencies might be your lackeys, but don’t overlook how well-connected they are.  They work with all the best marketers who circulate between agencies and brands; it’s a small world we live in.  They are less than six degrees of separation from almost any brand or influential marketer.  The biggest payoff for you could come if you were ever out of a job or looking for a career upgrade.  The senior agency partners who love working with you will not want to lose you as a contact, and will go to great lengths to help you land in a great place.