Kicking Off Your Agency Relationship

Last June, I wrote a column about how to pitch the agency of your dreams. In those heady days of an overheated economy, agencies had more business than they could handle; they were in the driver’s seat, and they chose who they would do work for. It was a far cry from my agency days when we fought hard for every good piece of business we could get.

Lo and behold, the economy has slowed, the market has softened, and the time-honored tradition of the client selecting its agency is rapidly returning. And while my hints and tips on how to win over the agency of your dreams is still pertinent, I thought today I would take it a step further. So, for those of you considering working with an agency — whether it be advertising, PR, direct, or design — how the relationship gets kicked off can make a big difference in the long-term success of that agency with your account.

So here are some simple, commonsense tips to help get things started off on the right foot:

Understand the agency’s process. Most great agencies have some type of process in place to help them discover who you are as a company and what your business is about and, consequently, develop the strategies and tactics for your marketing campaign. Typically, it is this process that got the agency to where it is. In other words, when you choose an agency, to a large degree you are also choosing the process by which the agency will handle your business.

However, many clients also have their own process. But rather than subjugating the agency to your process and most surely starting things off on the wrong foot, my advice is to let the agency get the work done in a manner in which it can best accomplish it. Otherwise, you’ll get subpar results. Now I’m not saying that the agency you are working with shouldn’t have some level of flexibility. Just remember that you chose the agency to do a job based on its track record, not yours.

Provide an orientation program. While the agency may have some type of process in place, it is still important for you to provide a thorough orientation program for your agency. In most cases, it is critical for any agency (even if it’s doing design and collateral work) to spend quality time with top executives. This way the agency folks are able to witness firsthand the tone and personality of the organization through its leadership.

I would then extend the meetings to individuals throughout the ranks of the organization, making sure each department is involved in the orientation process. Your HR department may have a new-employee orientation program — it’s great to run your agency folks through this. Additionally, if you have a service or a store, having the agency folks work with customers, use the product, or observe both is a great way to ensure the agency understands the organization.

Understand how the agency bills. Like most marriages, agency/client relationships usually fall apart because of money issues. The first bill from an agency is always the one that causes the most problems, mostly because payment issues were not ironed out in advance.

The most commonly heard client complaint is “They charged how much — what did we get for it?” Let’s face it — good agencies are not inexpensive.

You should understand exactly what you are paying for and how you are paying for it as methodologies, terms, and conditions vary widely. For example, if you are paying a monthly retainer, does that cover the completion of a mutually agreed upon set of tasks, or is it an advance on hours the agency has estimated it will work on your business that month, to be adjusted upward if it works more? (I guarantee very few will work less.) If you can’t answer those questions, talk to your agency today.

Set expectations. What do you expect from your agency? Do you want it to serve as your entire marketing department? Do you want it to provide limited service and support? Do you want it to develop short- and long-term business strategies? Do you want to test the agency on a project, and then hire it to handle the whole shebang? There are as many expectation levels as there are agencies and people to manage them. Clearly understanding what you want to get out of the relationship and clearly communicating that to the agency from the start is key to a successful agency/client partnership.

While there are innumerable tips on getting an agency relationship off on the right foot, these four basic tips should go a long way in preventing any missteps and, better still, moving both your organization and your agency down the right path.

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