Trust, tolerance and tenacity: the keys to a long-term relationship – Paul Phillips

I recently braved the throng at Advertising Week Europe in central London to join a panel on ‘How to build a long-term partnership in a short-term world’.

The focus was the eight-year relationship between The Brooklyn Brothers, their client Visit Iceland and their Icelandic partner agency Íslenska. We covered a lot of ground but, thinking about it afterwards, there were three things that stayed with me.

Trust through delivery

The first was the importance of trust in forging a long-term relationship. The objective for every brand’s brief is the business results that need to be achieved, and agencies earn their client’s trust by playing their part in delivering those results.

If the agency delivers for its clients, the agency earns permission to get things wrong occasionally. And because mistakes are often a sign of trying something new – because new things don’t always work – achieving some early success in delivering on the business objectives means you can try new things later on, knowing that if they don’t work you’ve earned the opportunity to go again.

People buy people

My second thought was that the old idea that “people buy people” still holds true, even more so in an AI/VR/programmatic/Alexa world. If a CMO and their team buy into the agency’s people, there’s a much better chance of the relationship succeeding and, therefore, lasting. If there isn’t chemistry and a good cultural fit, working together to deliver results can be much more challenging.

And there’s always another agency that can probably do the job just as well, whose people are far more friendly.

But while it’s preferable to have a good working relationship with your agency, there’s always the exception that proves the rule.

In a pitch for an aggregator site a little while ago, the marketing director’s single selection criterion was the strength of the creative idea; to him, nothing else mattered. Advertising was effectively their shop window. In that market, at the time, the model was binary – the brand remembered from TV the night before was the brand Googled the morning after.

For this marketing director, getting on with the agency team was a nice to have, but getting great work that delivered against the business objectives was a must have. He was prepared to endure a more challenging working relationship if that’s what it took to get standout effective creative work.

I don’t believe a good relationship with the marketing director in and of itself will help an agency scale the creative heights but, once again, if the previous work has delivered, that will encourage the marketing director to suck up any pain involved in getting there.

All things must pass

All this led me to my third thought, which is that no matter what we do in the world of marketing communications, all relationships are transient. All the goodwill developed between brand and agency evaporates at the CMO’s leaving drinks.

The ‘trust-o-meter’ is reset to zero and the agency has to prove themselves to the new CMO; a CMO who will have in the back of their mind the great relationship they had with a different agency in their previous job.

Brands change their agencies far more often than they change other professional advisers; their lawyers for example, or their accountants or auditors.

The impact marketing services providers can have on the fortunes of the business is much more tangible, which may explain why the temptation to change is so much greater. It might well improve things, and at least it’s a demonstration of having tried something. But all the evidence indicates that brands enjoy better business results from long-standing relationships with their agencies.

Reasons to review

At AAR we’ve seen that there are four main reasons for brands reviewing their agency: a statutory requirement to do so; a new need (wanting to use a specialist agency, for example); a new CMO coming into post; and general dissatisfaction. In three-quarters of the reviews we handle, dissatisfaction is cited as the primary reason for the review, which brings us back to where we started.

For CMOs, a successful relationship is one that delivers results. For agencies, too often a great relationship is success in itself.