Brands are from Mars, Agencies are from Venus

We’ve all heard horror stories of agencies greatly missing client expectations. It leaves a sour taste in both parties’ mouths and can quickly diminish the brand equity of the agency.

Mishandling expectations is a missed opportunity for everyone involved, but it doesn’t have to be. There should never be a huge divide in expectations vs. reality. A better way is possible.

The Way It Was The brand is often looking for an agency to come in, be creative, set processes to scale, and be the change agent of progress. But most brands are not able to effectively communicate their expectations, their KPIs, and the true goals of their stakeholders.

The miss happens because many brands operate in a “do now, ask for forgiveness later” manner in regard to getting approvals from their C-suite. This often leads to projects getting to beta and being scrapped.

An agency comes in, guns blazing with their best ideas ready to change the world. With most agencies operating in a feast-or-famine world, concessions are made, budgets are cut drastically, and unrealistic expectations are put forward just to win the business.

In this scenario, from the start, the brand and agency are off to a rocky start. Transparency is met with agency jargon and brand pushback. It becomes a vicious cycle.

A Better Way Expectation-setting should be the norm, and certainly the first step to any new brand and agency relationship. Before talking about tactical brand touchpoints, strategies to move the needle, or any other omni-channel execution, brands and agency reps should have a heart-to-heart conversation about realistic expectations, roles, and responsibilities to one another.

To produce a positive ROI for the brand and the project, the agency must first know the ROI measurements and weigh them in order of importance as dictated by the client. This often means having conversations about metrics that matter as well as understanding the importance placed on certain data points as directed by the client.

The success of the project and the agency client relationship are both dependent on a clear understanding of where responsibilities lie.

From the agency side, the client needs to take ownership of both the experience and the project. This starts with defining all stakeholders and understanding their commitment level. Brands cannot expect the agency to unilaterally execute all aspects of the project. Instead, the process should be collaborative. A healthy collaboration is paramount to effectively developing a successful solution.

The process needs to be an ongoing team effort, not a one-and-done conversation. The success of the project and the agency client relationship are both dependent on a clear understanding of where responsibilities lie. From project inception to completion, the agency must figure out how to augment the team to ensure that the experience is managed, functional, and moving forward.

Agencies should constantly strive to understand the brand’s objectives for the project. Never assume and don’t take cookie-cutter approaches to force a solution. The goal is to always come to the table with a good understanding of the brand and its business goals whether the project is a retail activation, a digital signage program for multiple locations, or themed entertainment.

For the brand, it is essential to listen to customers, vendors, and the industry. As the holder of the purse, brands are often held in much higher regard. But there are plenty of occasions when an agency’s project due diligence gives it a better handle on realistic budgets and delivery timelines. Successful relationships call for open dialogue to develop understanding and agreement on realistic budgets.

So here is what is included in the instruction manual on the rocket ship taking agencies and brand to and from Mars and Venus.

5 Agency-Client Relationship Hacks

  1. Brands, own the project. Brands should at all times have senior leadership buy-in to keep the ball rolling and to maintain positive trending project momentum. The “do now, ask for forgiveness later” approach can only lead to scope creep, uninspired strategies, and slow project death.
  2. Set realistic expectations by pointedly making that conversation one of the first, and schedule expectations check-ins to ensure that all team members are continually aligned on the project vision to allow for any mid-course correction.
  3. Agencies, instill a culture of transparency in your firm to circumvent moments of pivot or scope creep. When a project does need a different strategy or something isn’t working as it should, a transparent agency can have tough conversations no matter the outcome.
  4. Document everything with a scope of work full of details. Nothing can kill an agency / client relationship faster than having a scope of work full of holes and lacking details. An ambiguous document usually indicates a lack of strategic direction from an agency as well as a client just looking to dive in without truly understanding the size and scope of the project. If changes happen during the project, as a way to combat scope creep, create addendums to ensure that expectations are consistently being met.
  5. Build flexibility into the process. The market may dictate an unforeseen change, and an agency’s stance should not be so rigid that it cannot accommodate smart change.

This post originally appeared 1/22/18 on Retail Environments