The subject of agencies being partners, not suppliers, keeps cropping up. Hence Claire Beale’s rallying cry "to move on from the procurer/supplier mentality… and redefine what a client/agency partnership really looks like".
So without downplaying the pandemic, as many clients are now more willing than ever to collaborate, perhaps it’s the perfect time to finally make this happen.
One hurdle is that the word "partnership" is woolly. Agencies often use it as a lazy synonym for respectful relationships. Others argue that partnership resides in value-based pricing.
The latter has more merit, but many agencies confuse value-based pricing with payment by results. And even if you can agree on attribution, sharing a slice of risk and reward says more about incentives than partnership.
Clearly, skin in the game and mutual respect aren’t trivial, but at best they’re symptoms of a partnership, rather than the causes.
So we need to consider where partnerships come from.
Make yourself scarce
You can’t be a partner when you’re a commodity. That needs solving first.
Competition has expanded. Clients have changed how they buy. The old rules for standout don’t apply any more. You can’t just rely on culture, your work or a slogan masquerading as a proposition.
Instead, consider your agency’s entire customer experience. Just like brands in their own crowded markets, simply solving a problem isn’t enough; you need to prove it. Everything you say – and do – should serve as proof of the promise you’re making. Every little helps.
Embracing remote working is a case in point. Surely, we’re all finally beyond miming inverted commas whenever we say "working from home". That has big implications for talent, process and accountability.
Imagine if a unique model or having bespoke ways of working – like Croud – could help your ideal clients substantiate your proposition.
It’s the same for how you price, sell, hire etc. They’re all opportunities to differentiate. And once your value is seen as scarce, genuine partnership can follow.
Partnership is bespoke
Dreadful though this crisis is, as Rory Sutherland argues with typical poise, it’s also a rare opportunity to change.
If you want clients to see you as a valued partner – and heaven knows why you wouldn’t – then you need to get beyond the rhetoric.
Partnership is too important to be vague about. It’s too far-reaching to be left to individuals. And it’s too nuanced to just follow the herd.
Now, I appreciate there are plenty of moving parts here, from proposition, pricing and value to accountability, culture and the future of work. But that’s precisely the point – bespokely joining the dots is where the value lies.
Ask yourself what kind of agency you’d like to become once all this is over. But don’t stop there. Define what "partnership" means, as well as how it benefits you, your people and your clients.
Finally, do yourself justice – embrace the breadth of change required to make it happen.
Lip service is a disservice.
Robin Bonn is founder of Co:definery