Optimizing Your Marketing-Partner Relationships

Anybody marketing these days knows the squeeze is on from all sides. Try as we might, none of us can get away from the fact that the new marketplace – with new competitors ratcheting up customer and consumer expectations – forces all of us to behave more attentive externally than ever before. As though the competitive pressures of a very new marketplace weren’t enough, marketing and marketing communications departments are facing the demands of the “new management.” Simultaneous re-engineering, flattened hierarchies, cross-functional teams, and shrinking staff and resources create the push-pull of “do more with less.” That means Marketing Management has to find ways to cope with the additional pressures of servicing internal customers, above and beyond meeting the demands of the marketplace. To make the pressure even worse, significant changes in the way we do marketing and in the challenges posed by the dramatically volatile world of marketing communications technology – the “new media” confront us everyday. Where once there were only a couple of advertising options, marketers can now advertise almost anywhere from the local grocery store shopping cart to a DVD bound into a major magazine. Also, technology now allows us to address a target prospect by name through the mail or beam a message right into a household via interactive cable TV and hand held devices. While the options are powerful, they make the marketing mix all the more challenging and complex. All of these combine to put an extra burden to the squeeze on Marketing Management. The pressures culminate in senior management’s new demands and deliverables expectations of ever greater return on marketing investment: every dollar being spent is put to an ever greater test to work harder than ever before. The pressures can be overwhelming. To survive, the marketing manager can:
  • work harder than ever before
  • demand heightened productivity of the staff
Neither of these options is particularly appealing, much less viable given the level of stretch already in place. There is, however, another option with which to challenge and successfully cope with the pressures at hand: figure ways to get more from your outsourced marketing communications suppliers. That is, get the firm’s full-service advertising agency, public relations firm, interactive, or direct marketing firm from functioning as directed suppliers to partnered relationships. Assuming a marketer is blessed with an agency who sees advertising as a part of the entire marketing scheme, and who can relate as business people to both marketing’s and the CEO’s top-down view of the business.  An agency partner can impact bottom-line results almost immediately if the agency is managed properly/properly partnered. How can your agency help? Of course, you want your agency to create great advertising, effective on-line programs, response-generating direct mail and tastefully designed collateral. But there’s a lot more they can do to help you manage the marketing function. Specifically, a good agency can:
  • Help know the market better
Your agency should jump through hoops to get to know you, your competition, your competitions spending patterns, your industry, and anything else that can affect your marketing mix. They should want to attend trade shows with you, accompany your sales reps on calls, get to know the key influencers in your market, and generally pepper you with more requests for information than you can handle. More than anything your agency should want to get as close as possible to your customers so that they can know how they think, feel and act upon your product/services. Why? Because all great communication is designed to reach a living, breathing human being . . . not a “target demographic. If your agency is not doing this, ask them to . . . they may simply be waiting for your “signal.”
  • Respond to new management style with out-sourced “teams.”
This means both agency-client partnership, as well as partnerships among multiple agencies, if you have more than one. The former is what all good agencies aspire to; the latter is a growing issue for both agencies and clients, especially given the increasing number of specialty agencies that focus on just one arena of the marketing discipline such as direct, interactive or event marketing. Can you really expect agencies that normally compete to work well together on your behalf and help develop a fully-coordinated campaign? Can you expect your agency to get involved in much of the daily grind of successfully running your business? The answer is yes…if certain ground rules are established in advance.
  • Train you, the client, on new marketing approaches and media.
Believe it or not, a good agency can be a superb source of training for you and your staff. This is especially useful in a company where corporate routinely brings in people from field sales positions, customer service, or publicity-related jobs to fill marketing and marketing communications positions. Whether the topic is new research methodologies, new technologies in media, an analysis of creative trends, or business writing skills, your agency’s capabilities can be put to work for you in more ways than you may have guessed. Of particular help in your business is your agency’s experience with other consumer and B2B clients . . . have them share case history studies with you. What is happening in other industries will probably have some applications to your category. Are you utilizing the talents of your agency partners to stay one step ahead of marketing communications trends? You should.
  • Provide the highest return by doing what they do best: think creatively.
If your agency is a true partner with you, your agency team should be providing ideas that go beyond “traditional” agency roles. From “packaging” ideas or “bundling” of certain services, to “branding” a particular way you do business, to helping create meaningful tracking devices for customer service . . . every aspect of your company’s activities have a profound effect on your position in the marketplace. Is your agency willing to provide ideas that will affect your marketing but may not affect their own bottom line? They should.
  • Participate in continuous improvement.
The effect of TQM (or the aftermath of the TQM initiatives) cannot be overrated. Your agency should have a process in place to plan, implement and evaluate every aspect of your work with them. Sure, there are going to be mistakes—they are human, too—but what you want from them is a consistently high batting average here, not a home-run every time. The question is, do they have a process for evaluating both the effectiveness of the programs they implement and the agency-client relationship itself? If you’ve not seen examples of this, ask that it be done. What is the marketing management’s responsibility in this process?   The answer is simple: A clear vision of what you want and need from your agency resource and the communication of that need to them. Perhaps you have never asked the agency to be proactive. Or perhaps you may think the services mentioned are add-ons to which you are not entitled. The truth of the matter is most of the activities mentioned are standard operating procedure for any agency worth its salt. In any event, find out what your agency can, and will, provide under the terms of their present contract. You might be surprised at their answer. But remember that the agency-client relationship is both give-and-take. You too, are responsible for putting better management initiatives in place, as well, and they include:
  • A willingness to share.
Share your information resources freely, including data and access to key people. A gatekeeper mentality doesn’t work well in getting the most from an agency. They are not being nosy when they ask for internal documents, statistics on your customers, or “experiential training” in one department or another. Here’s a rule of thumb: if giving your agency information or access makes you uncomfortable, it probably represents a key issue for marketing. If you trust your agency, you should share it.
  • An understanding of the agency’s need to make a profit.
If you don’t know how your agency makes money, you should ask them and understand it in context of other agency normative data. It’s in your interest to ensure the continuous profitability of your agency, assuming you want them around for the long haul. Every client-agency relationship involves a significant investment for both parties. Understanding the agency business will help you maximize the return on your investment in time and money.
  • A fairness and equability in your agency assignments.
Business ethics and common sense dictate that agencies should be rewarded for good work. For example, if you have several agencies involved with your business, the responsibilities of each agency should be clearly delineated in advance. In addition, the agency who works the hardest to supply boundary-free thinking, training and other value-added services should eventually be rewarded with a bigger piece of the pie. Otherwise, the people who are your best resources will ultimately be demoralized. The result: they will either stop providing value-added, or they will resign the business. Remember the old adage that great clients make great advertising. Relationship Planning Session Of course these exhortations are easy to say and hard to put into action. One technique that we’ve found helpful in getting the relationship optimized between a marketing team and its agency is to have at least one off-site meeting dedicated to relationship planning. The session is structured as an opportunity to maximize ways of working better between and among key marketing management and key agency players. To start the process, have everyone think about how matters would be organized if marketing and the agency were part of the same organization, rather than two organizations coming together to carry out a transaction. The exercise extends easily from there into defining a shared mission, goals, objectives, values, and reward patterns for the new department that could easily be called a “CLIENCYSM.” Eventually, efforts extend to how best to communicate, what talent and other resources are required, and how to reduce costs and improve quality. The exercise allows a re-engineering of the relationship and gives a clearer sense of joint direction. These sessions are frequently most productive when an outside facilitator is used—someone who can push for more honesty when the tough issues are being discussed and play devil’s advocate without long-term consequences.   The ideal scenario of a true agency-client partnership is possible. If, however, none of the value-added services described are even remotely likely to happen, your working relationship is beyond repair. You might begin to find a new one.   About The Bedford Group The Bedford Group is an Atlanta based Marketing Management Consulting firm that has been in operation since 1986. It has built its reputation on marketing organization supportagency search and relationship management and strategic marketing consulting.  Unlike traditional advertising consultants, The Bedford Group looks beyond traditional marketing disciplines to solve complex, enterprise-wide issues for efficient resource management and improving marketing ROI. For more information about our services, please contact Kerry Kielb at 404.237.4565 or kkielb@bedfordgroupconsulting.com.