Changing relations: what to ask for in the new client-agency landscape.

For small to mid-sized businesses who might be using or searching for a marketing agency, it’s important to understand the revised landscape of the advertising and marketing communications business, in terms of the relationship between agency and client.  It’s changed profoundly, driven by the Web, social marketing, the economic travails of the past few years and more, and it’s affected every Chicago agency and client.

The big advertising holding companies and multi-nationals, the boutique design agencies and Web pure-plays and every 360-degree integrated agency.  The demand for better, and more measurable, performance and ROI is the norm, now – and with good reason.

What’s the new normal? It starts with these key points any marketer should bear in mind as they contemplate working with an agency:

  1. Invest in a real relationship. Some marketers, especially smaller ones or B2B marketers, view agencies strictly as vendors, not partners.  They’re handicapping themselves by not making use of an objective, creative and business-building asset that can deliver returns far in excess of outlays.  Sometimes it takes patience to see the impact, but if you’re working together, appreciating each other’s input and staying the course, agency and client alike will love the result.
  2. Collaboration matters more than ever, so if you’re shopping for an agency, make sure they’re not prone to retreating to an ivory tower and dispensing “genius” as though their work were Sermons on the Mount.  They need to intimately understand your business challenges, the nature of your own customers and prospects, and be able to workshop concepts and ideas with you as a matter of course, not as an exception to the rule.  They can learn from you – and you should be opening to learning from them, too.
  3. You all need to look at the bottom of the funnel first; it’s customer/prospect contact and engagement where the money happens, where analytics can give you insight about what works and what doesn’t.  So you and your agency need to understand what drives consideration and purchase first, and make every marketing or communications decision accountable to it.  If it doesn’t move the needle, you’re wasting time and money – and you need an agency that’s willing to play there, not simply deliver clever/pretty/award-show-worthy creative.
  4. Look for a solutions partner, not an ad agency: my friends at Biersma Creative, for example take pride in supplying “transformative” solutions to business problems, not just ads or Web sites.  Too many agency-client relationships get submerged in confabbing about font choices, or background colors, or other minor elements, and don’t tackle the need to deliver holistic solutions to pressing problems.
  5. Ask if they can deliver business intelligence and insight, because if they’re halfway strategic, they should be able to give you some fresh insights about your business.  And build programs that can generate valuable feedback and hard data.
  6. Develop an ROI measurement plan that’s realistic and comprehensive. Start out by making sure you’re both on the same page about what constitutes “ROI.” Don’t assume your agency isn’t interested in metrics – even the smallest shops, if they’re truly invested in the work and in your success, want to see what results they’ve pulled for you.  Surprisingly, even the largest brands sometimes don’t share that information with their agencies (until the pink slip, that is) which makes no sense at all.How can the work be improved without some idea of its effectiveness in the first place?
  7. Nothing beats face-to-face. Get together regularly; not just for lunch or presentations, but for workshopping or ideating.  You’re part of each others’ teams now, and need the personal touch that makes for real enthusiasm and spirit.
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