Robert Sawatzky
Feb 14, 2017

Secrets to a steady (client-agency) relationship

What makes some client-agency relationships healthier than others? We invited them to share their feelings.

Secrets to a steady (client-agency) relationship

It’s that time of year to celebrate a special someone in your life. Someone who you share ups and down with, the thick and thin. The one who makes you feel better when others disappoint, the one who challenges you and sticks with you through the hard times. The one with whom you’ve built a special relationship based on mutual trust, love, respect and retainer fees.

Yes I’m talking about the client-agency relationship. It seems that in the past, when a client and agency found each other, they stayed with one another for the long haul. In 1899 Lintas was introduced, courting customers for Lifebuoy soap, and they never looked back. MullenLowe and Unilever still share that 117-year old relationship. BBDO has been going steady with GE for 96 years and with Mars for 80 years.

R3 examined the world's 40 oldest client/agency relationships

These days, lasting partnerships are hard to maintain, especially in leaner economic times. But money matters have always placed stress on relationships. Nowadays though, new technology has introduced new options for brands to chase. Fresh new temptations appear and disappear with the swipe of a finger, selected from beefed-up databases, that target only the most relevant and appealing capabilities. No wonder more and more clients and agencies are simply hooking up for a quick one-year contract before returning to the speed pitching circuit. (As you can tell, I remain fully committed, if not happily married, to this sweet syrupy metaphor).

So on this occasion, we wanted to hear from the blissfully wed in Asia-Pacific about what makes for a great relationship. Our colleagues at Campaign India have launched a survey to get a comprehensive view of what makes or breaks client/agency relationships.

We’ve also received some direct responses from those wanting to share the magic of their special bonds.

Cheil and Dongsuh Foods

Cheil's brand new campaign with 40+ year client, Dongsuh Foods

Think of Cheil’s special relationships and you immediately think Samsung—so intimately inseparable. But since Samsung owns Cheil, we're not sure whether it really counts as a partnership, but Cheil has built other long-lasting relationships, including Korean coffee and tea maker Dongsuh Foods, a client from day one, more than 40 years strong.

Here’s Cheil account director Chansub Shin:

What made this special partnership possible was the trust and confidence we’ve been building together. Frequently meeting the client and having conversations even when it is not exactly related to work is important. Also, we try to solve client’s problems through the front door instead of dodging.

Agreed, dodging out the back door would not be a sign of a healthy relationship.

Mindshare and Nike

Mindshare and Nike have been working together since Mindshare’s inception nearly 20 years ago. Here’s the love note penned by Mindshare’s Nike team:

Nike is more than a client, as they literally helped shape the spirit and identity of the agency. To this day our founders talk about the question that was asked on that pitch so long ago, “What athlete or team best represents your agency?” Our answer was Cassius Clay, not Muhammad Ali, but the young upstart who was determined to shake up the world. This rebelliousness and drive have never left us and neither have Nike. Together we have created some of the most epic and awarded campaigns in advertising…

Awww. Sports talk rarely works on a first date, unless it’s Nike I guess.

FCB Ulka and its sweethearts

In India, FCB Ulka has proven its staying power with many lasting clients including Zodiac Clothing (53 years), Kansai Nerolac (33 years), GCMMF (Amul) (30 years) and Hero MotoCorp (28 years). FCB Ulka’s CEO Nitin Karkare has worked with Amul and Zodiac for nearly his entire tenure at the agency, which began in 1986. Here are his tips:

There are many soft factors that ensure a long lasting relationship with a client that go beyond the hard metrics. The most important being do you really care for their business? Do you genuinely share their highs and lows? Are you available for them when they really need you? Nothing can be more reassuring to a client than having a business partner who deeply cares about their business.... At the core the client and agency need to be like-minded. Difference in culture can be a source of constant friction. While a shared culture can act as a lubricant ensuring a smooth working relationship….

Finally success is the biggest glue in any relationship. Every client wants a business partner who helps them win. There will be ups and downs but overall we need to win more than lose for the client. Which requires building a team in the agency that is passionate about the clients business. Passion for the clients business has to pass like an electric charge through the baton at every transition.

Passion, electric charges, cultural lubricants… we get the attraction.

Mindshare Greater China and Johnnie Walker

Then there are those who are very much in love with a brand, but have yet to consummate that love in a client relationship, like these folks:

Mindshare Greater China is in a very special long-term relationship with Johnnie Walker. It has been going on for years, and to be frank… it's pretty serious. There have been good times, great times, times we hardly remember, and those we wish we could forget. Like any relationship, it has not been easy, and dry January tested us both, but like a romantic movie we ran through the airport, straight into the lounge and we embraced again.

 What has made this work so well? One could say that over the years we have developed an unhealthy dependence upon each other. A relationship that we are glad to continue through the work week and we easily give up weekends for. 

Please join us in raising a flask and celebrating our unique, "long lasting brand-agency relationship”.

Please note Mindshare Greater China's confession to us: It does not work with Johnnie Walker in any official business capacity….yet everything above remains true.

Six secrets to a great marriage

Lest you think this article is completely trite, it’s time to provide some practical advice for those aspiring to strengthen their nuptial bond. An R3 report outlining 40 of the most enduring client-agency relationships provided six key steps to keeping your relationship healthy, summarized by our colleagues at Campaign US

1. Look to new models  

As in a human marriage, agencies and clients should continue to keep things fresh—whether it’s the Brand Agency Leader model or IMC innovation.

2. Face time matters 

Don’t just depend on emails and phone calls. Visit each other’s offices or hop on a video conference.

3. Focus on outcomes, not inputs 

Don’t waste your time negotiating the appropriate compensation; instead, agree on payment based on how much you sell and what it will do for the brand’s equity.

4. Take digital seriously 

Digital is often considered an annoying marketing buzzword, but it’s important. Invest in your digital agency hires for the long-term, so you develop a digital strategy, not just a one-off execution.

5. Practice "immersion both ways."

Agencies should flip burgers if they’re working for Burger King, and marketers should visit their agencies’ offices and become their advocates.

6. Benchmark and evaluate with data.

R3 points out in its findings that Johnson & Johnson excels in evaluations, "actively asking agencies for feedback on how they can become a better client." 

This last bit of advice mimics a recent finding from the Association of National Advertisers: more than 80 percent of marketers use data to manage their agency relationships.

 

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