Six tips on how to be a semi-decent agency partner

Identifying a shared belief between a brand and its biggest believers is key, according to Rethink's Aaron Starkman.

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This article appears in the November/December 2017 issue of strategy.

By Aaron Starkman

Client-agency relationships aren’t always filled with sunshine, lollipops and rainbows. And despite the fact that every relationship is unique, there are some universal ground rules agencies can live by to ensure they don’t become a marketer’s dark and stormy cloud.

Don’t refer to human beings as “clients.”

“Client” is a dirty word. No good comes from saying it internally. These human beings have names attached to them. It’s usually something like Chris, Margaret, Asif or Jackie. When discussing brand partners internally, you could say: “Robin really needs our help on something.” Or you could say: “Client is mandating that we do X, Y and Z.” The former statement encourages the team to help someone who really needs it. The other unnecessarily vilifies them and encourages resentment and annoying trash talk within your agency. And that almost never gets you to a great solution fast.

Stop focusing your briefs only on what the brand wants to say or do.

Agencies spend a lot of time figuring out what a brand stands for and believes. But in today’s socially driven world, the most important thing is identifying a shared belief between a brand and its biggest believers. It’s at that confluence you’ll find the fertile ground to build brand relevance and fuel customer relationships in surprising ways. Otherwise the brand becomes that bore at the party who insists on only talking about themselves.

Don’t put profit before people. 

Here’s a sure-fire way to have a disengaged agency staff. When you see you’re not about to make your profit margin as mandated by your CFO in New York, you lay off a bunch of people to hit the target. The remaining people are told there’s a wage freeze and they have to work ridiculous hours (including weekends). That way it appears to the brands you work with that there’s no drop off – except that there is a drop off and it’s painfully obvious. When you hate your work, it shows up in your work.

Present thumb-stopping work.

Mobile is now the primary screen, but every social platform has its own challenges and opportunities. If you’re not obsessing over your aspect ratio, sound design and use of kinetic type, you’re going to fail the mobile audition (Ed note: click here to learn how Rethink is putting design-infused social first). You can’t move comms KPIs if people are bailing on your content after three seconds to see a funny video of their friend’s cat.

Hiring nice people doesn’t matter if you have an asshole process.

There’s probably no greater hell for marketers than to be in a creative presentation going through a 45-page deck when they knew they hated the idea on page one. And then finding out there’s no “door number two.” Instead of digging deep on one idea, we prefer to dig a lot of “shallow holes” early in the process. We invite our brand partners into the kitchen with us where we show them several loose directions. Usually the shallow holes get narrowed down to two or three. And that’s when we start digging deep. In the end, there will be a more traditional “ta da” presentation. It’s important that we have the answer in that meeting, but it’s presumptuous to assume we’d get there without the marketing team’s knowledge and involvement.

Give actual proof that your digital content works.

Digital channels offer analytics on everything. It’s too bad so many agencies don’t share this data with the creative team actually building the ads. It’s essential to provide your teams with quantifiable, easy-to-understand data. Not tracking and sharing results with the team is like listening to Spotify without the sound – what’s the point? Integrating tracking tools, testing and optimizing your campaigns and reviewing digital post-campaign reports is the new baseline. And integrating those results into the next iteration of your brief is the new secret sauce.

AaronAaron Starkman is a partner and creative director at Rethink.