Mark Hadfield
Aug 16, 2017

The future of the industry isn’t data, it’s relationships

True client-agency partnerships deliver disproportionately large awards, but aren't easy to build or maintain. Mark Hadfield of Iris Worldwide shares some fundamental principles.

The future of the industry isn’t data, it’s relationships

We’re about 18 months into the most recent edition of Industry Doomsday—the never-ending series of events that will change the communications industry forever.

Remember the previous episodes?

  • “Tablets will kill the TV.”
  • “Facebook is killing advertising.”
  • “How will planners remain relevant?”

And the most recent episode: “Beware of (or embrace) the consultancies!” (Depending on which channel you watch.)

The consultancy debate is one we at Iris have a vested interest in, as we were one of the first networks to buy one, over 10 years ago. But there’s something amiss in the whole discussion, in my opinion. It focuses on how agencies get to the answer to the client’s problem, and how efficient we can make the process from an agency viewpoint. Yet none of them focus on something much more fundamental than data, programmatic or consultancies.

It’s this: partnership.

Partnership creates disproportionate success

You can have all the data you want, you can serve as many sequential messages as you want, and consultancies can buy every creative agency in town, but true agency-client partnership is a multiplier that can lead to disproportionate success like none of the above factors can.

That's because true partnership is about trust, honesty, collaboration, challenge and compromise. These are traits that machines and data cannot achieve.

Actions not words

Lots of agencies talk about partnership. But how many of us can truly say we partner with every single one of our clients? Partner into relationships that are based on challenge, collaboration and trust?

I’ll be honest: we don’t. Our clients span a range of different relationships: some are further along the ‘supplier’ end of the scale, as opposed to the ‘partner’ end of the scale.

And whilst we approach them with 100 percent ambition and energy, the chances of extraordinary work are limited because of our limited relationship. But we're immensely proud in Iris APAC about the range of clients we partner with beyond that 'supplier' mentality. 

Here are a few principles that we use to help turn a supplier relationship into a partnership:

Commitment before content

Don’t start your relationship based on output. It’s essential you start your relationship with a shared commitment of how you want to work together. If you set the rules of engagement at the beginning, the successful output should follow.

  • Agency action: Don’t chase the money via outputs. It follows when you set your partnership up for success.
  • Client action: Don’t discuss scopes of work until you’ve agreed to a partnership charter.

Forget comms and focus on business

One that agencies talk about and then conveniently forget when they need to hit their quarterly forecast. For our strongest relationships, we have frank and open discussions about whether our client’s communications brief will achieve the business objectives. If we don’t think it will, we try to change the brief, or we decline to work on it.

In the short term this means we may lose a bit of income, but we gain in reputation when the project launches and makes the other agency money while failing to achieve the business objectives.

  • Agency action: Don’t be scared to lose the small comms battle, if it means winning the larger business war.
  • Client action: Welcome your agency challenging your briefs, and understand if it sticks to its guns in the short term; it’s for your long-term success.

Agitatation not agreement

The language we use within the industry refers to "clients"—as in, "a person or organization using the services of a lawyer or other professional person or company"—which means a master/servant relationship. With this dynamic, not to mention certain Asian cultural norms, comes the fear of saying no to a client.

It’s absolutely critical that you have the confidence and permission to say no. It should be set out in your partnership charter that agitation is a key part of collaboration. And it’s essential to empower, educate and empathise with more junior members of the team through these agitations; there are many more cultural and hierarchical barriers for them to break through.

  • Agency action: Sign up to a relationship built on agitation, and treat blind agreement with suspicion.
  • Client action: Sign up to a relationship built on agitation, and champion it within your organisational structure.

If you whiff ‘supplier’, pull out

Lastly, listen to your gut. Because, as I’ve said above, for all the data and intelligence that exists, the human gut is to be trusted. If you are being told by a new client that it wants to enter into a partnership, but all its actions sniff of a supplier relationship, have the confidence to walk away.

Again, the income may be appealing in the short term, but you’ll do your agency reputation and your staff dynamic too much harm.

  • Agency action: Listen to your gut… it’s generally right.
  • Client action: Be honest about whether you want a partner or supplier. Saying you want a partner when you really want a supplier is a recipe for disaster.

Mark Hadfield is APAC planning director for Iris, which won two awards in the 2017 Agency-Marketer Partnership (AMP) Awards, which are being presented by Campaign Asia-Pacific and The Observatory International this morning in Singapore. The agency also won an AMP award in 2015


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