The life and loves of the brand / agency relationship

With a whiff of love in the air last week with Valentine’s Day and all the cheesy madness that comes with it, I got to thinking about how the whole agency-client relationship cycle has many parallels to a love affair.

RFP’s are like dating profiles

Much like reading a dating app profile, a savvy brand will know that just readling RFP can you give you real feel for how the relationship is going to go. Reading between the lines of the language, terms and conditions and requirements can quickly give you a flavour for whether the client is going to be collaborative, creative and engaging, or demanding, bullish and exhausting. 

We recently received an RFP which was so incredibly one-sided in terms of SLA requirements, travel & expenses policy and payment terms, responding to it would have been like swiping right to a Tinder profile that said “Utterly selfish bastard seeking bitch for one-way relationship”.

Agencies who enter RFPs and think that the constraints of the contract aren’t reflective of the nature of that relationship be warned! 

Dating is like pitching

In one of my favourite stand up routines ever, Chris Rock talks accurately about first dates explaining “When you meet somebody for the first time, you’re not meeting them, you’re meeting their representative”; both preened to within an inch of their lives and on absolute best behaviour.  

The parallels between dating and pitching are uncanny. Desperate to impress, the agencies roll out their best first team and invest huge amounts in catering and pitch theatre in their attempts to make the brand feel like they will be the centre of their universe. 

Sometimes, that first date (aka the chemistry meeting) can go really well. The heart of the client beats furiously as they feel like they might have met the one. Yet into the next much-anticipated creative presentation and you realise they’re not who you thought they were; you see between the creative shine and the pork sliders and realise they’re not great listeners, talk too much about themselves and clearly aren’t going to be the kind of partner who rolls up their sleeves and gets stuck in to solve the real issues of your crazy, dysfunctional family. 

Personally, I think pitches are a criminal waste of time and money (like insisting a tailor makes you a suit before you agree you’re going to buy it!) and should be based on chemistry plus experience alone. I also think it should mandatory for the people running the day-to-day to be in the pitch. Many times brands fall in love with an agency CEO, only to meet the slightly less enigmatic AD or AM running the day-to-day business and feel somewhat duped.

Intermediaries are the high-end matchmakers

Creative Brief, AAR, Oystercatchers and the like are the Yentls of our industry with brands paying them significant fees to filter their potential suitors and give them a better chance of finding the right match.

The desperately-seeking agencies, are also paying fees just to make sure they can even get in the room with the much hallowed client and often invest with several different intermediaries to spread their bets. 

Although I definitely see the benefit for both parties, as a teeny weeny agency it does sometimes feel like we’re never rich or handsome enough to get on the books or be invited to the party. 

Winning a pitch is like falling in love

Winning a piece of business and onboarding a new client is much like the honeymoon period – the victory dinner where you clink glasses in a Soho restaurant, cockahoop with excitement, as you envisage the following weeks and months working together to navigate your differences, discover your combined passions and move forward together to build something beautiful. 

What brands and agencies don’t realise is that the best and most of these relationships are hard to sustain and the development of mutual respect, trust, appreciation and a willingness to flex and learn is where the real work is.

As an interim Marketing Director many moons ago, I remember being shocked at the way the team I had inherited totally beat up the agency with their feedback. Anyone who’s ever been in a bootcamp session with me will know my obsession with rapport and how confidence is the responsibility of leadership… how anyone thinks they can get good work out of a creative team by destroying their motivation or confidence is beyond me. 

The best relationships are where there’s a balance of power

Ultimately, brands need to know that they can trust their agency’s decision-making and recommendations, have courage when they push them and know their concerns are heard – and that means having an adult:adult relationship. 

Brands have a responsibility not to abuse the transactional nature of the relationship (ie the fact that they’re paying!) and agencies need to stop being so cap-in-hand when it comes to their approach to clients and have more empathy and understanding of what support they really need.

Back in the day, I wrote a programme for the IPA called “Under the Skin” which talked about what it’s REALLY like to be a client and was always amazed at how little the agency teams would know about how much a CMO or Marketing Director has to consider outside the agency’s remit; juggling budgets and resources, embedding the brand across the business, understanding the right technology to invest in, supporting the overall business strategy, influencing the service and product strategy… and it goes on.

And like all relationships, there is family involved. All good suitors know that impressing the parents and the siblings is vital (anyone who’s seen the Apple TV series, Bad Sisters will agree!). Agencies have to spend time getting under the skin of the business (see what I did there?) to make themselves well known to all stakeholders and ensure they really understand those internal politics. 

Breaking up is never easy

Much like the end of a love affair, breaking up can be painful. The news that the client has decided to pitch their business, can feel like finding your boyfriend on Tinder. In an ideal world, both parties can come together to agree that the relationship has come to an end, that a change in leadership either side or a change in market conditions mean it’s time for a change. Sadly, it’s often the case that there’s just fatigue on both sides, usually symptomatic of a relationship where one or both parties haven’t worked hard to keep things fresh; regular reviews away from the day-to-day, investment in time out of the office and regular outlooking can be the agency equivalent of stockings and fishnets but are often ignored in the face of busy diaries. 

Sometimes however it’s just worth recognising that things have reached a place of no return and the braver agencies among us will be able to confidently walk away when communication breaks down and shared values and ambitions no longer exist. 

There is always hope

The good news is that there are tonnes of brands and tonnes of agencies and as my Mum used to say “every pot finds its lid”. 

At the risk of taking the analogy too far…  it occurred to me that as some of us agencies like B2B as much as we love B2C – one might consider it bi-market!