The New Age of the Symbiotic Relationship
Symbiotic client-agency relationships are the founding block of any creative, impactful and remembered work. You don’t get cultural impact and strong commercial results without the brand and agency working together, with transparency and respect, to push the envelope to create the phenomenal work that the market demands. However, with repeated financial recessions and increasing competition, we’ve seen agencies slowly become more desperate and subservient, tipping the scale in favour of the agency brief ‘as-is’.
But what if a more mutually respectful client-agency relationship was the new standard? Would it in fact generate better creativity and wider space for thinking? Would a more mutually beneficial relationship make room for more innovative ideas and a more original outcome?
I think the answer to all the above is an overarching ‘yes’. But changing a norm in the client-agency dynamic is by no means an easy feat. Many of today’s agencies are so eager to land a job, that they’re far too quick to bend over backwards to accommodate the client. Failure to go deeper and deconstruct a brief can often be to the detriment of the client. Without the right questions, a client won’t find the real solution they so desperately need, because the agency is not offering its much needed breadth of talent, knowledge and expertise.
There needs to be a fresh approach that introduces a new way of thinking to the equation, breaking that mould of the traditional ‘question-answer’, ‘master-servant’ relationship. It should not be about the client dictating the brief to the agency, but more a conversation that develops through shared ideas. Putting likeminded people in a room and having respect for each other’s expertise is paramount.
The client-agency relationship is unequivocally a commercial transaction. As agencies, we are in the business of helping clients sell more products and services. But the clients who are brave enough to look at their spend as a true investment to deliver a return, will see the agencies as a partner.
Challenger brands tend to get the most out of their agencies because they have more flexibility to buy across a wider spectrum and into alternative ideas. If they like an idea put to them they’ll rightly give an agency the creative leeway to explore a solution within their remuneration models. It’s the bold, open-minded and flexible brands who think of agencies as commercial partners.
It’s important here to realise that you don’t have to be a struggling start-up to be a challenger brand. Being a ‘challenger’ is a mentality, not a market position. Whether big or small, these brands are committed to staying at the top of their game by continually reinventing the categories they live in. And they can’t do that unless they invite challenge into the process from the very beginning. Challenger brands understand that objective perspectives need to be considered and assumptions need to be dismantled in order to spark the new sort of thinking that is going to keep them fresh and relevant in the ever-evolving market.
Starbucks is a great example of an established brand that has kept that challenger mentality. From its in-store experience to its retail environments to its packaging, the brand tirelessly pushes the envelope to transcend the conventional notions of coffee brand can be. They listen to their consumers, learn from their mistakes, and refuse to rest on their laurels.
But I believe another key factor in their success is how they leverage their agency relationships. Though Starbucks has a brilliant global design team who live and breath the brand, they also invite challenge into the process by engaging outside agencies and consultancies to provide a different point of view. They value the power of this disruptive thinking and respect its practitioners, fully recognising that success comes from real collaboration where agency and client are on equal footing, bringing their ideas and expertise to the table for the ultimate benefit of the brand.
The fact remains that any good relationship, be personal or professional, is symbiotic – it has to be, in order to boost success. A client needs an agency as much as an agency needs a client. The attitude by both parties needs to be shifted into a more mutual, equal and respectful gear. We need to be asking the right questions and reaching solutions that challenge a client’s original brief, that go against the grain and deliver beyond the boundaries of limitations. It’s time we started asking some new questions and seeing some new answers.
Mark's Article originally appeared on Brandchannel.