Dating, Marriage, Divorce: How Brands and Agencies Should Navigate the Relationship Cycle

By David Muldoon, VP, Strategic Advisory EMEA, MediaLink

Relationships are complicated.

It doesn’t matter how in love a couple is – they rarely see eye-to-eye 24/7. But when their relationship hits a rocky patch, successful couples invest time and energy into righting the ship and finding a compromise. Having an open and honest conversation: recognising their own failings, discussing the relationship’s problems and finding common ground. And often having the help of an independent 3rd party can help create a strong foundation for a long lasting relationship.

The same principles apply to best-in-class client-agency relationships. There will be bumps in the road – misunderstandings, communication and briefs that need to be clearer, individuals that cause friction, and a lack of structure that brings progress to a standstill. The knee-jerk reaction is to call a pitch, whereas an important first step is to find out whether the situation can be rectified.

Divorce (or going to pitch) can be exhausting, expensive and sometimes unnecessary, as most of the problems can be resolved with a structured framework for success. 86% of agencies believe the pitch process is excessively draining – both financially and time-related and 54% agree it puts a strain on workers’ mental health. For brands, it also involves extensive time and resources, and can result in a loss of shared expertise and history.

Bringing in a mediator between agency and client can significantly help to resolve issues before irreversible breakdowns’ occur. This should be rare, and going to pitch should always be the last resort, not a foregone conclusion.

To build the perfect client-agency partnership, it’s time to start viewing it from a human relationship perspective. Using this framework, I have shared the secrets to a successful long term partnership, from pitch/dating to relationship therapy…

Testing the waters

Just as dating apps allow relationship hopefuls to put themselves out there, the pre-pitch process enables agencies to build their own ‘dating’ profile to attract clients. By creating visibility on critical issues, through case studies and thought leadership and nurturing relationships with key stakeholders, they can showcase what makes them the best partner.

Once matched, the pitch is an opportunity to see if sparks fly. It sets the foundation for a future relationship.  It is a time to experiment with innovative ideas and who’s going to pay the bill (with pricing models) – and on a broader scale, agencies can see which ingredients to nurture for future pitches. After all, learning from past relationships is key to finding the love of your life.

Much of courting comes down to chemistry. In a pitch, savvy agencies know the keys to success; connection in the pitch room, putting skin in the game, proving their reliability, being innovative, and learnings from past performances, are all critical to unlocking an efficient, successful pitching process.

Tying the knot

A marriage is only as strong as its vows. Setting up clear success metrics and KPI frameworks, coupled with regular top-to-top reviews, creates transparency and invaluable trust in the relationship.

A contract’s value hinges on having the right people in the room that aren’t afraid to ask difficult questions. CMOs, marketers, procurement, and legal counterparts have many factors to consider before penning their agency deals.

If the scope stays like-for-like each year, do the fees reflect subsequent efficiency gains? Are there scaled consequences if commitments aren’t met? Have productivity metrics been memorialised in the agreement? And perhaps most importantly – has the ‘star talent’ that you saw in the pitch been assigned to business-critical roles?

Positioning the contract as a ‘reservoir of return’ – built on productivity forecasts and savings guarantees – can give it credibility in the short and long term.

The power of relationship TLC 

Even the best relationships can become tenuous over time. But couples don’t go down the divorce route lightly. Agencies and brands should do likewise.

Due diligence is paramount – going through the relevant stages and ensuring no stone is left unturned. Escalate the matter further into the business and speak to senior stakeholders on both sides, as well as seeking an unbiased and experienced 3rd party intermediary for support.

Most importantly – relationship therapy is not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of intent, a willingness to get to the root of the problem. Don’t be afraid to revisit the contract, as it should be a living and breathing asset that aligns with business needs whilst providing a clear-cut definition of success, not sitting in a drawer, gathering dust.

Enlisting the help of a moderator – a neutral third-party specialist that can review the underpinnings of agency-client relationships – ensures an objective assessment of the relationship. They can be the ultimate preventative measure, helping to frame the relationship away from the traditional supplier-brand mindset. At MediaLink, we are often brought in by clients and agencies to support these discussions, provide a proven framework, a structure to make contract-related decisions and advise on joint business plans (JBPs) that drive success.

Wiping the slate clean

Of course, divorce is sometimes unavoidable and when it is, building on the structure that you have developed with your internal and external relationships is still paramount, to ensure you maximise both efficiency and effectiveness. However, when you factor in the knock-on effects, both budgetary, time and on morale, the benefits of first engaging in therapy become more apparent.

Going to pitch is the full stop on a relationship that has run its course. But at a time when as an industry, we are starting to have adult conversations about client-agency relationships and taking vital action to create positive dynamics, the solution isn’t so clear cut.

And when your relationship is special- and has been historically effective- it might be worth fighting for!