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How Brands Can Have Successful Agency Relationships [Part 1]

Discover the secrets to successful brand-agency relationships. Gain valuable insights and transparency from an agency owner with two decades of experience.

Welcome to the first of a two-part (and possibly more in the future) article series.

I hope you gain some valuable insights for your brand or organization.

I’m writing these articles from my point of view, having been on the agency side for nearly two decades. I’m the first to admit that I’m not perfect, nor is the agency that I own – or any of those that I have worked for over my career. Let’s get that out of the way right now!

The agency/client relationship and dynamic involve all kinds of perceptions, including assumptions that range in accuracy.

As I get deeper into my career in digital marketing, I’m picking up on some trends.

Some of these aren’t new, but I can attest to what I’m seeing in the marketplace with people (agency and client-side) moving jobs more quickly than in the past and the tech changing more rapidly than it has before.

Whether you’ve been with your current agency for a long time, are considering hiring one at some point, just started with one, or have been burned by many, this is the inside scoop for you.

Yes, you’re paying the agency money, but successful relationships take work from both parties. I can tell you that there are things you can do to get the most out of it.

Here are seven tips for getting the most out of your relationship.

1. Make Sure Your Companies Align

As with most of these tips, this one applies both at the time of considering agencies to partner with as well as if you’re already in an agency relationship. Companies change over time, or new things emerge when you have the chance to start getting into actual work with each other.

Regardless of where you are in the relationship (or if you’re considering one), how it started, or where it is now, you want to ensure you’re never out of alignment for long.

There are some definitive non-negotiables when hiring an agency, and one of them is in your company’s core values. If the agency’s values (just like those of an employee or anyone else you partner with) don’t match up with yours, there will be friction.

Yes, this is one of the hardest or possibly subjective or “fluffy” things to analyze and measure.

However, I can guarantee that if you have a data-driven, accountability, and performance-focused company and the agency you’re working with doesn’t align, then you will have problems – no matter how well people get along.

Or conversely, if you’re a people-first company and you partner with a laser-focused, type-A performance agency only focused on numbers, then your brand, community, and mission-focused goals might not align.

Speaking of goals – you have to be clear about what those are and share them openly.

If they are financial and super tangible, then getting them on paper, doing the math together with the agency, and making sure it is clear how efforts by the agency, as well as your company, come together to reach the ultimate goal for the partnership is important.

In the absence of clear goals or alignment on them, you run the risk of just receiving reports, having reporting meetings, and putting yourself in the middle with having to interpret the agency’s data or deliverables against your company goals.

That can be a challenging spot to be in as you are the one determining whether things are working or not.

2. Have Clearly Defined Communication

We’re in an era of some of the most technical digital marketing and AI-driven strategies ever.

Yet, I often hear from people frustrated with their current agency that the primary reason they are dissatisfied or firing them is about communication; it isn’t subject matter expertise.

Getting communication right and sharing your own expectations about it, including the type, frequency, and ways that you do it, are important.

Want more than just a monthly meeting? Want to be on a texting basis? Do you expect to get a response within minutes versus hours or days?

There are so many misfires and invisible walls that get built by agencies. Sometimes, that’s on purpose to protect scope and to triage things, and in other cases, they don’t know when you’re not getting the level of communication that you expect.

Be vocal about what you expect and make sure it matches up with how the agency works – or can work – if you’re already in a situation where it isn’t where you want it to be. That includes sharing expectations and feelings.

If you struggle with knowing if you’re being direct enough or feel like maybe you’re too direct, then I would encourage you to make sure that all of your communication, and that of the agency, is done in the spirit of shared values.

Beyond that, I strongly recommend Kim Scott’s book “Radical Candor.” It has been a great resource for my team for internal communication and has great examples we use for communication with clients, too, as we work to be tactful, respectful, yet caring and direct.

And, one last note here, wearing my agency hat: If you know that you’re potentially a blocker for frequent communication, then be upfront about that as well, please.

I know the agency will appreciate that so they aren’t filling up your inbox and getting frustrated not knowing how hectic your schedule is. They should be willing to adapt their communication to match your availability, and my hope and assumption is that you’re willing to be available to them (or you wouldn’t be hiring them).

3. Get The Expertise You Need

In the past year, my agency has undergone a pretty dramatic change in how we are niched and focused.

Many agencies are doing so, but there are still plenty of full-service and integrated agencies and those working to expand into new service offerings. I recently wrote about what type might be right for you.

No matter which type is right for you, you definitely need alignment in terms of the expertise offered, both horizontally and vertically.

Know the range of services, channels, and offerings, as well as how deep they go. Plus, how well they layer all that onto your specific industry vertical.

If you’re going to a primarily B2C ecommerce agency and want B2B lead generation, you will likely be out of alignment.

Or, if you’re trying to gain quick sales and are working with a long-form content marketing agency, you might not be properly aligned.

4. Make Sure You Have Your People

Do you know the people you’re working with? Do you have deep conversations? Are you on a texting basis with them? Do you know what they know and what they don’t? Do they often change or are you working with interns?

I’m not here to blow up or bash on other agencies. I believe there’s a right fit agency for every brand. Until we’re all robots or fully replaced with AI (joking), the people will be one of the most important parts of every agency relationship.

If you like who you work with, respect them, have a great communication cadence, and they perform to your expectations, then you have the right people.

Change is inevitable and will happen within your staffing or at the agency. It is important to know upfront how changes will be communicated and handled and what type of “new” people will be in the mix.

Don’t wait for something to happen to get clarity on transitions, the plan, and what level of transparency will be in place if people change, if you have any issues with the people you work with, and how escalations will be handled.

5. Be Clear On Accountability

This is an often misunderstood word.

Most of us don’t love being told that we will be held “accountable” for something if we don’t want to be. Or if we don’t have full control or all the information needed. Or if we’re already wearing too many hats.

I strongly advise that you have a defined level of accountability you’re seeking from an agency. That can include everything from how they communicate, what reporting looks like, how deeply they have visibility into your company, and what lanes to stay within.

If you want them to constantly bring new ideas, follow your processes, define what performance looks like for you, or have ownership in the relationship in other ways, be clear and upfront with that.

Without putting on the table what you expect and want accountability for, the agency can’t be the partner or part of your team that you want, as they’ll default to their standards or be left guessing, leaving you frustrated along the way.

6. Know The Scope

This one is probably obvious, but I can say from the agency side that both agencies and clients sometimes forget what is in scope.

Sometimes, despite the most detailed MSAs, contracts, or SOWs, there are gray areas. Sometimes, agencies are bad at setting expectations and overdeliver or do value-added things that are really nice, but then when they pull back on those, it can be a surprise.

We’re in an era of many value-based, deliverable-based, productized, or flat-rate services. That’s great in the sense that you get all of the things included at a single price, no one has to scrutinize every hour, and we’re more focused on production versus performance.

However, I don’t know any clients who like to hear the words “out of scope” or “change order,” or who get a cold shoulder with the agency slow playing on requests, avoiding the “s” word altogether.

You don’t want that, and I don’t want you to experience that. Agencies aren’t always the best at communicating until things are more acute versus in the moment.

My advice is to be very clear in your understanding of what is in scope, what is out of it, how the agency will manage it, how they will communicate about it, and whether there’s a process for ongoing communication to ensure the scope is the right fit on an ongoing basis if you’re in a retainer or ongoing agreement.

7. Be Willing To Make Resources Available

No, this is not a greedy agency owner saying this. The reality is that, as I mentioned earlier, agencies typically don’t love to surprise you with hidden costs.

However, if they’re constantly thinking about your business and opportunities to grow it, some of those new ideas might be out of scope. If you have this type of agency partner, you’re in a good place and can evaluate each new idea.

Even within the day-to-day scope of your agreement, things might come up. I recently wrote about how SEO isn’t just SEO.

That’s a great example of how even if you have engaged with an agency for search, some of their recommendations might be beyond the scope of what you’re paying them to do within the SEO aspect of things.

Maybe you need to invest in your website, content creation, or IT. Some of these things may or may not be within the agency’s scope. You might have other partners or internal resources that need to help out.

Being willing to make internal resources, software, data, tools, people, or outside contractors available to your agency will go a long way in ensuring you don’t get limited or siloed services that max out below the ROI expectations that you have.

If you’ve budgeted up to your last marketing dollar and don’t have room, let the agency know that upfront, as they can likely stack their work in a way that leverages creative solutions rather than hitting roadblocks along the way.

Build A Relationship That Spans Years

My hope is that if you’re doing an agency search or currently have an agency relationship, this article will help you avoid some of the misalignment or pain that wrong-fit relationships can incur.

Regardless of where you are on your journey, there’s a big two-way street with agency relationships, and getting your right-fit partnership can go a long way in terms of peace of mind and performance.

Starting with values alignment and drilling down through accountability, communication, and resources, you can have a relationship that spans years or decades and don’t have to make sacrifices or find the hidden issues as you go.

Look out for part two next month, which is focused on how agencies can have successful client partnerships. I strongly believe in transparency from both sides of the agency/client relationship, so there are no secrets here.

More resources:

Featured Image: fizkes/Shutterstock

VIP CONTRIBUTOR Corey Morris President / CEO at Voltage

Corey is the owner and President/CEO of Voltage. He has spent nearly 20 years working in strategic and leadership roles ...

How Brands Can Have Successful Agency Relationships [Part 1]

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