Five Steps to Improving Agency Relationships

March 14, 2018 / POV
Lisa Tomassen

The world of marketing continues to evolve in today’s fast-paced and ever-changing customer landscape. Now more than ever, CMOs and chief communications officers are being held accountable to drive bottom-line growth. This means there’s no wiggle room for error when it comes to leading successful marketing teams and agency relationships. I know this because I’ve seen all sides.

After eight great years developing and leading integrated, multichannel marketing campaigns at a corporation, I’m now back at a PR agency managing breakthrough campaigns. It’s been eye-opening. While I’ve seen vast changes in modern public relations practices, there are persistent issues when it comes to client-agency relationships. Here are five key ways CMOs can manage and strengthen agency relationships to get the most out of their work.

Your agency is as successful as you enable it to be
Too often I’ve seen an agency thrown under the bus for lackluster business results when the problem was clearly on the client side. Like a great coach, clients are responsible for inspiring the best performance from their agency partners by providing inspiring goals, clear direction, and offering the right amount of support from data, insights and business context. If an agency’s North Star differs from the client because of unclear or poorly communicated direction, then no one wins. Scrub your brief of useless business jargon, focus your agency on your most substantial business challenges and concentrate on what will move the business forward.

Bring them upstream
One of the biggest obstacles for an agency is that it is often expected to execute a plan that is lacking the creative or cultural rigor and insight that is needed to make an impact. Frequently, a client team builds a plan that checks the promotional or paid media perspective boxes, but an agency’s ability to support it with earned media or word of mouth is limited. My advice is to pull the PR, media and creative agencies into the planning discussions earlier so they can help shape an idea together and ensure it has the most talkable and sharable aspects possible. I’ve seen some of the best campaign ideas coming from the most unlikely sources - from R&D to tech support. And when the agency has access to those cross-functional team members during upfront planning, it can help unlock fresh approaches and solutions to existing business problems that produces outstanding creative executions and results.

Don’t underestimate the power of a PR mindset
While traditional paid advertising and promotional activities are effective for distributing brand messages on a mass scale, I’ve observed that what they have in reach, they often lack in authenticity and consumer connectedness. Because today’s consumers have more access to information, they are becoming more and more skeptical of corporations. They also have an increased desire for honesty, transparency and authenticity, so brands can no longer assume one-sided paid marketing levers will suffice. Therefore, PR has an opportunity to enable brands to walk the talk, bring life to their purpose, demonstrate meaningful brand behaviors and create deep relationships and goodwill with key audiences. A PR mindset throughout the development of a brand strategy and campaign can help the brand more deeply connect with its target audiences by providing utility, novelty, interest or delight.

Stop marketing to yourself
This one drives me crazy. Far too often I’ve seen clients develop briefs with a target audience that sounds familiar because it obviously is a reflection of his or her own biased background, experiences and beliefs. Our nation and world are extremely diverse and nuanced, so we can no longer expect our personal gut instincts and experiences are enough to inform the development of a key audience target. While it may seem exciting to get your product featured in the Wall Street Journal for instance, if your end consumer is not a reader of that publication, those impressions are useless. Put the rigor into deeply understanding your market opportunities and knowing who your target audience is: What motivates them? What entertains them? What passions and interests do they have? Once you know these things, identifying the places to play via paid, earned and owned media, partnerships and promotions become much more relevant and successful. 

Expect diversity
In the same vein, surrounding yourself with agency partners who look, act and think exactly as you do is a great risk. Consider this: Does your agency reflect America? Can it tap into consumer empathy to understand what consumers truly need and value? Does it have diversity of gender, race, economic, geographic, educational and career experiences? To produce great work that inspires people to generate logic-defying loyalty to a brand, the client-agency team must push each other, challenge assumptions and dig deep beyond the surface to uncover universal truths that will resonate with audiences.

Lisa’s POV was also featured in PR Daily.