Agency/Client Relationships: Collaboration is the Key!

I was reading a blog by Gail Kurpgeweit entitled What My Dad Taught Me About Marketing to Women and it really got me thinking.  How well do marketing and market research agencies anticipate their clients’ needs and how flexible are they in meeting them?  From my experience, I would have to say not very well, particularly in today’s economy. 

From my experience working on both the agency and the client sides, I have seen both the client and the agency miss the boat.   In the past, traditional agencies have focused on being the expert/authority on a subject and could spew out the generalities that come from such a position.  That said, what was and is now needed are partnerships in which both parties come to the table with expertise and knowledge to build the relationship and collaboratively construct an answer that is “right” for today.   And, to be successful, marketing and market research companies will need to know how to work with each of their clients and their clients’ senior management to build workable strategies and solutions based on today’s needs, which can be real moving targets. 

Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not like the clients and agencies aren’t going into their relationships assuming that they are building a partnership.  It’s just that neither party seems to put enough effort into building an answer that is appropriate for today’s dynamic business environment.  I think this lack of an active partnership comes from a few important factors:

  • Yesterday’s business dynamic was that a business person hired a “marketing expert” because marketing was outside of his/her core competency and that “expert” was assumed to have the answers immediately.  Clients got used to immediate answers and agency folks became enamored of their unquestioned authority stature and all was good… until, the business environment became highly dynamic and today’s perfect answer became an abysmal flop tomorrow.  There aren’t any easy, pat answers anymore.
  • The need to actually talk about business situations is compounded by the fact that clients  and agencies are just too busy to effectively communicate
    • Clients don’t inform their agencies about what is going on in their industry and agencies don’t communicate that they know just enough about their client’s industry to use the right buzz words and be dangerous.
  • Agencies are so focused on getting new clients on the books, they aren’t taking adequate time to get to know and understand the unique needs each client has.   They can’t assume that all insurance companies have the same needs and pain points, just as they can’t assume that all CPG (consumer package goods) companies have the same needs and pain points.
  • Environments/industries are changing at light speed, and agencies just can’t keep up and know all of the answers from square one!

So what does this mean for today’s marketing and market research companies?  To retain their base and perhaps grow in these uncertain times, they need to:

1)     Focus on the partnership.  The relationships that marketing and market research companies have with their clients have to strengthen in order to make them mutually valuable.

2)     Be a real expert.  It’s not okay to spew the industry buzz-words and lack substantive assistance.  Agencies have to make a meaningful difference to each client.  Sometimes an agency has to ask the tough questions and force folks to recognize the elephant in the room.

3)     Visit more.  If time is money, than relationship meetings are worth their weight in gold. It’s during these in office visits that you will learn the most about what is going on in your client’s world.

4)     Be more nimble/flexible.  Agencies need to be better at coming up with answers on the fly.  They also need to test their comfort zone boundaries when it comes to strategy development.  You can’t rely on the same old, same old.

5)     Really listen.  Clients usually articulate their needs/pain points if you listen hard enough.

6)     Ask more questions.  Don’t assume the client has thought their needs all the way through.  And clients, ask your agencies for help.  Don’t think you know it all either!

Will client relationships evolve to the point where the marketing or market research company operates as a true extension of their client’s team?  If they don’t, the deterioration rate for agency/client relationships – which has been in a downward spiral for over ten years – will continue to take this potentially valuable relationship out of the business norm. In the end, it’s up to all of us!

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