In planning out potential content for our Sullivan Insights Blog, we had an idea.  What would happen if we asked one of our clients to write something about working with an agency? So, we did, and what follows is the advice from Roscoe Bufkin, Vice President, Marketing Communications at Mueller Industries, Inc.

Finding the key to client and agency success probably reads similar to the workings of a dating site.

Disclaimer: In case my wife is reading this…no, I have not been personally visiting any dating sites…love you honey!

My point is that it’s not hard to find countless resources to just get an ad, sign, logo, or other such design things done.  However, if you are embarking on a partnership with an agency that you will rely on to help support and guide you through not only your design needs but also your more encompassing marketing communications objectives, you will want to know more about what each other is looking for in the relationship…and what is really compatible.

When either party’s traits, needs, and values are not clearly understood, the end feeling often becomes a lot like the old saying of when one buys a boat: The happiest day is the day you buy your boat and the day you sell your boat. No one really wants those types of feelings. So, to help avoid the risk of wasted expense and emotional trauma (insert your own business or personal relationship scar here), below are three tips to consider when selecting and working with a marketing/communications/brand agency.

  1. Get to Know Each Other

To have a good business relationship, two companies have to relate. Too often client-agency relationships fail due not due to the final product or quality of work, but to one another not really knowing each other. Not fully understanding who they are getting involved with; how one or the other works, how processes, sense of urgency, costs thresholds, product expectations, priority assignment, and other key things align. In the end, both parties feel like they have to put way too much work into getting anything done, or in general, making one another happy. This usually destroys budget expectations for both parties.

The client should paint as clear a picture as possible as to who they really are culturally, their company’s position on marketing related expenses, the type of work they want and expect, the voice and nature of their target audience(s), how they are internally organized and available resources, how projects come into the log, the urgencies around certain types of projects, etc.

In turn, the agency has to paint a picture of how their organization, model, and responsiveness best aligns with the said needs of the client, the best account executives to align to the account, frequency of client contact to keep things moving, where does it make sense for the creative department to be directly involved due to complexity of client or project nuances, and in general, their ability to relate. Some agencies are just more niche or naturally mated to certain markets, products, and client types. When they start working with clients outside their usual zone, the pain starts to arise in the form of excessive versions, repeated meetings, and so forth. The agency and the client simply can’t understand each other as they wish.

So take the time, share as much as you can, and be honest on what you are really like.

  1. Take it Slow

Even after you have gotten a good sense of each other, it’s still a good idea to start with a small project. Though this is not always feasible due to certain campaigns and other time or project constraints, it certainly helps when it can occur. This could be an independent project or something that’s a safe component to a larger project. These small test projects give you a chance to experience how the relationship may go.

When I say a test project, I don’t mean give the agency a super straight-forward project that any freelancer or first year graphic designer could do. Give them something that will really test things. For example, a one-page advertisement that requires product photography, line drawings, life-style photography, custom copy, industry specific technical references, competitor research, technology sub-branding, or other.

Give the agency a project that has some meat on it; that will be a solid test. The exercise will serve both the client and the agency well. Most importantly, if the agency and client leave the project with good perceptions of each other, even if they don’t really, it’s valuable to meet afterwards and debrief. Share what worked and what didn’t. The feedback helps everyone be a little wiser.

  1. Meet the Parents

If you have moved past small projects and are moving towards a longer-term relationship with more strategic and ongoing marketing work, it’s generally a good idea for the client to meet the agency’s principles and it’s good for the agency to meet the client’s principles. Knowing that organizations are all very different, principles could be anyone from the CEO to the owner to the Marketing VP. Whomever that may be, somewhere along the way, the insight and hopefully, respect, gained by key executives on both sides will come into play. It may be in validating insight, utilizing broad experiences, getting buy-in on different directions, building trust, or other. It’s one of those things that help both the client and the agency at some point in time.  

I remember learning years ago that a good project launch is more often like a plane taking off than like a rocket taking off. The long, slow steady ascent with less drama is usually more successful than the big explosion with fast, short vertical rise. To close on the relationship analogy, I guess more marriages survive that don’t have certificates from The Little White Chapel in Las Vegas. That could probably be said about a lot of client and agency relationships. So take the time to make sure you are compatible. Your business efficiency and marketing success will be rewarded.