3 Keys To Successful Relationships

BendixWebA marketing executive wears many hats. They’re marketing strategists, brand evangelists and almost always integrators and arbiters of diverse marketing ideas conceived by CEOs and fellow executives.

But those are just the most visible responsibilities. Add budget management, performance metrics, staff development and the daunting task of managing relationships with creative firms and you get a more complete picture of his/her responsibilities.

While business schools do a good job of teaching students to think strategically and manage a budget and staff, rarely is time spent teaching the intricacies of developing and maintaining a productive client/creative agency relationship. Marketers are left to figure it out for themselves—often the hard way.

I recently gave a presentation to a joint marketing conference of the Washington & Oregon Bankers Association on the subject of Getting Great Work From Your Creative Agencies. In preparation, I surveyed leading ad agencies and design firm principals with one question:

What is the single most important element in a good client/agency relationship? The answers were revealing and can be summarized in two words—mutual trust.
But how do you build trust and a positive and beneficial relationship with creative partners? There are no doubt many answers, but in my experience, it boils down to these three practices that, together, can help establish a healthy partnership:

1. Define Your Organization’s Needs. Exactly what goal do you need a creative services firm to help you achieve? Is it developing a new graphic identity, remodeling a Website or devising a marketing campaign to drive consumers to your retail stores?  The more clearly needs are defined, the easier it is to select the appropriate provider. More than one firm reported to me that often potential clients have only a vague idea of their goals or what the deliverables might be.

2. Select The Most Appropriate Service Provider. Choosing the right type of creative services firm means understanding the core services and skill sets of advertising agencies, graphic design firms, Web developers, public relations teams and new media specialists.

It can be daunting for all marketers, new or seasoned, to stay informed about agency capabilities. Ultimately, it comes down to identifying people with the right technical skills, experience, sensibilities and personality for your needs.

While many may have the right skills, it’s important to assure they also have the experience, project management and communications skills to see the project through to a successful conclusion. If you don’t feel comfortable with the people at your first meeting, move on.

It’s also important to match the size and needs or your organization with the capabilities of the provider. If you’re planning to do multiple projects in a short time, or your company is expanding into new markets, be sure the agency has the horsepower and sophistication to handle it. Conversely, if you’re a small business and only need occasional design help, a boutique shop may be a perfect fit.

3.  Actively Manage The Process. Being in control of the process is the essential   element in developing a positive and constructive relationship with creative services providers. Lack of leadership has been the death of many good ideas.

A. Take the time to bring creative services firm representatives to your office to orient them to your company. Introduce them to the people who’ll be making the decisions and coach them in the intricacies of the company’s brand, products and culture. The better they understand your organization the better job they’ll do.

B.  Be sure key decision makers attend input and preparation sessions. When new graphic identity or creative work is the subject, include your CEO or president, as well as the heads of the business units whose products or services are being marketed. When the decision maker isn’t involved, you’re setting yourself up for potential delays, communication breakdowns or worse.

C.  Assure that your creative services team follows up project-input sessions with a creative brief. It should include a tight definition of job requirements, the target market, the most important messages to convey, other information needed from the client (research, graphic standards guide, photos, etc.), timing, due dates and deliverables.
The creative brief should be reviewed by the same company team that participated in the input session. If something isn’t right, this is the time to correct it. Creative briefs usually don’t include cost estimates, but they should be linked to costs in terms of scope and deliverables.

D. Coach your corporate team (the same one that participated in the input session) how to act at the presentation sessions. Creative teams are hired for their expertise and knowledge of their craft. Part of their mission is to find new ways to differentiate your company through compelling graphics and messages. “New” can translate into uncomfortable for some people. Your team should understand that this is a give-and-take process that can take some time.

The agency shows solutions and you respond. How you respond is important. Allow the agency to show the entire scope of work before giving feedback. Remember, you don’t have to like everything and don’t have to approve anything at this meeting. It’s often better to give general feedback and then follow up with a thoughtful response from all involved in a day or two.

E.  Be as clear and unambiguous with agency feedback as possible. If you don’t like an approach, say why it’s off base. If your like a headline or creative element, tell them about it. Be respectful and honest.

Good client/creative agency relationships grow through open communication over time—just like any relationship. The more clear and effective the input, review and approval process, the fewer misunderstandings and the better the results.