It may sound cliché, but to get the most out of your agency relationship, treat your agency like a partner. Don’t hold them at a distance or withhold critical information from them. If you’re not candid with them, if you can’t risk and learn together, you’re not going to leverage the full scope of what an agency can do for you. The agency won’t know enough to bring you breakthrough ideas, or they’ll be too nervous to share, if they fear getting their hands slapped for going outside the box.
This seems like obvious advice but the truth is, many client/agency relationships aren’t partnerships.
When I was on the client side, more than anything, I appreciated an agency partner who would challenge my thinking. There are a lot of agencies that do great work, but less common is an agency that will politely disagree with you when they feel you’re making a mistake that can hurt your chances for success.
It’s a tricky and delicate dance. No one likes to be told that their plans are ill-advised, or that there might be a better way to achieve a goal or address a problem. It takes courage and confidence – enough confidence in yourself to know that no one person has all of the right answers all of the time, regardless of his or her title or how high up in an organization he or she happens to be. On the agency side, it’s also hard to offer tough love when you know the person on the other end is writing the check. But it can be done. And when done effectively, everyone benefits.
I think about Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals, and how President Lincoln deliberately assembled people around him who didn’t think the same way he did, and who, in a few cases, outright opposed him. Of course, you want to operate in unison with your agency most of the time, but on occasion, a little healthy friction can be extremely valuable. It can help expose a problem you were blind to, or help you anticipate the unintended consequences of some action you’re thinking about taking, or discover an entirely new way to engage your customers.
Now, it’s a two-way street. Your agency also should be willing to be challenged. If they resist whenever you push back, take offense to your criticism, or if the ideas they bring you are in their best interest and not yours – Houston, you have a problem.
I think many people on the client side would agree that they don’t want their agency relationship to be relegated to just one more thing to manage or babysit. Many clients want an agency that will continuously bring them new ideas and challenge their thinking when appropriate. If you want your agency to speak up and call it as they see it, the best way forward is to be open, honest and candid with them, and make it clear that you value their insights as much as their work product.