Importance of relationship management from day one of a new agency appointment

We see and hear about this time and time again. In the glow of the new agency relationship, both the marketer and the agency are often oblivious to the need to establish the ground rules and implement a process of on-boarding the new agency and establishing the working relationship.

Often when we raise the topic the marketers feel that the process will happen naturally, and both parties, agency and marketer, are keen to get on with the work now the selection process has been completed.

But without clearly establishing the ground rules and putting in place the rules of engagement, the euphoria of these early days can often lead to issues in the way the agency works not just with the marketing team, but with other agencies in the roster.

At the least there will be a loss of productivity in the relationship, at worst it can lead to a complete breakdown and the need to go through the whole selection process again.

Why avoid the process?

Having been through the agency selection process, which can take weeks, or even months, it is natural for both the agency and the marketers to want to get to work rather than undertake further process implementation. But a short-term focus on outcomes will ultimately be compromised by not getting the process right.

Of course, rushing into a new or major project with the new agency will invariably mean that both parties will work out a way of working along the way. But often in the rush of the new project there are miscommunications and oversights of some of the major issues.

Many marketers will feel these are a small compromise, which can be corrected later, only to discover that by the time they have an opportunity to address the issues arising there has been significant loss of time, resource or budget and the relationship, once past the honeymoon period, has soured.

This is a classic situation where an ounce of prevention can eliminate the need for a tonne of cure later. The process does not have to hold up the work, but it does have to be done and can be incorporated into the program of work upfront.

What is required and when?

There are three key areas that need to be established up front:

  1. Introduction / induction into the business and the brand
  2. Agreement of roles, responsibilities and expectations
  3. Planned reviews and agreed issue and conflict management

Ideally all of these should occur within the first 100 days of the new agency appointment. (Please note that we assume there have been a contract and agency remuneration agreement as part of the appointment of the new agency. If not, this should be completed immediately.)

Introduction and induction

The first stage is to ensure the agency is introduced to the relevant stakeholders within the organisation and the wider roster.

These meetings often occur naturally, but often they are strategically driven, with a view to deliver the first lot of outcomes from the new relationship. There is a need to also provide the new agency with a broader strategic and culture context in regards to the new organisation.

Agencies work with many different clients and each one has their own culture, strategy and processes. Therefore it is important that within these introduction and induction meetings the agency is able to obtain a better understanding of all three.

Introduction and induction meetings should be organised at a minimum with:

1. Senior management

Agency senior management should meet with the organisation’s senior management team. Even if this has occurred during the selection process it is important that the CEO and others in the C-suite have the opportunity to clearly communicate their expectations of the agency and marketing.

2. Marketing team

The marketing team (beyond the selection panel) should meet with the key agency account management staff initially. It is also worthwhile to organise a series of introduction meetings in the agency for all marketing staff to meet and be introduced to the team, including the various capabilities and disciplines.

In some cases marketers and agencies have organised job-swapping to facilitate this orientation. It can be particularly effective when collectively they are working on a major project, rather than waiting for a ‘quiet time’.

3. Other rostered agencies

Often overlooked, perhaps because it is assumed that the agencies know each other, is the organisation of meetings to make sure the new agency team meet the existing or incumbent agency staff working with the marketers.

This is particularly effective when you have the lead strategic, account management, creative and production resources in this meeting.

Having the existing agencies on the roster meet the new agency and discuss how they work together and their existing roles and responsibilities is a great way to set up the next stage.

Roles, responsibilities and expectations

Some of the biggest issues are the misalignment of expectations and the duplication that occurs when agencies are working together without a framework. I have written about this previously, as it is a natural consequence of the agencies competing for their share of the marketer’s budget that they will increase their scope of work and their responsibilities to maximise their influence.

Introducing a new agency into the existing roster (even if this is just adding a new agency into a handful of agencies such as media, digital, experiential and the like) can lead to new tensions and disruptions and disputes.

Often in response, a Six Sigma Black-belt will suggest undertaking a process mapping and optimisation process such as RACI. This can be definitely worthwhile for those interested in process, but we have found the detailed nature means it is rarely effective.

At TrinityP3 we have developed and use a process we call the Engagement Agreement, which is explained here. Basically it is a facilitated opportunity for the marketers and the agency, along with the other rostered agencies if appropriate, to articulate their expectations and requirements of each other and have these agreed and recorded.

If an Engagement Agreement exists then this becomes the basis of the process as it is revisited with the new agency and updated or modified to suit. One of the key benefits is it can easily be incorporated into the induction and introduction process as it is an excellent way for the teams to get acquainted.

Reviews and issue resolution

Most marketers will say they review and monitor their agency performance. However, in many cases the approach will be rather informal. It is important to have a robust and regular process for both agency and marketer to assess and provide feedback on each other’s performance and the performance of the relationship.

There are a number of ways to do this, from a simple score card system to the use of various software systems. We have reviewed a number of these approaches previously and the most important thing is to firstly have a process and then to make sure you have the discipline to implement it on a regular basis.

To achieve this you need to determine and agree the following:

  1. What are you wanting to measure – Agency performance? Relationship performance? Collaboration? The criteria will determine the best methodology
  2. Which agencies and stakeholders will be involved? – Determine which agencies will be involved and which marketers.
  3. How often will the review be undertaken? – It can depend on issues such as the size of the roster, the strategic importance of the agency and the volume and pace of the work, but the ideal is twice yearly, or more regularly.

Using an external facilitator can help, but it is not essential as long as there is someone on the team responsible for managing the process. Either way you need to make a commitment to the process over the duration of the agency relationship to yield the benefits.

Between the planned reviews you also need a process to address issues and disputes that arise either with the agencies, or between the agencies on the roster. This is simply a process to identify issues and facilitate the solution.

The ideal process will ensure fast resolutions without having to escalate the problem to the senior agency and marketing team.

What are the benefits?

In the first six months, we estimate from our experience that the agency and the marketing team will invest up to 20% more time with each other achieving an operational alignment and addressing issues arising.

By taking a planned approach to on-boarding the new agency, this level of resource investment can be significantly reduced as the alignment is achieved across the whole marketing team and the agency roster at once, ensuring consistent alignment.

Our experience managing agency performance and relationships has shown that when teams are aligned in expectations, strategy and responsibilities there is greater efficiency in delivering outputs and outcomes.

When this is regularly measured, managed and maximised it builds stronger, more enduring relationships.

In the short, medium and longer term there is increased efficiency and effectiveness, with less miscommunication and misalignment, not just between the agencies and the marketing team, but also between the agencies themselves.

So why do so many marketers avoid setting their new agency up for success upfront? Perhaps you can tell us.