“We need to talk” — the hard truths about client/agency relationships


Periscope's Peter Nicholson takes the stage at Advertising Week for a panel on trust.

What happens when you put agency and brand leaders onstage to talk about one of the biggest issues facing the industry today? You get a lot of great insights about transparency and partnership trust. Our Chief Creative Officer Peter Nicholson joined a panel discussion with esteemed leaders at Advertising Week New York, which you can view here. The group included John Deschner of TBWAChiatDay Los Angeles, Beth Brady of Principal Financial Group and moderator Greg Stern of BSSP, who all spoke with Peter candidly about building trust, making fair negotiations and creating better work as a result.

When you start your next partnership, keep the following takeaways from the panel session in mind:

  • The stronger the client/agency relationship, and the more investment both sides have in it, the more likely a true strategic partnership will emerge. And that is what drives the insights and understanding that leads to the best work.
  • Risks are a necessary part of moving forward — nobody ever became a pioneer in their category by asking for an agency or brand to prove a risk’s worth first. While analyzing the degree of the risk based on an ultimate goal is important, it is trust that allows the big leap of faith.
  • A client can best encourage an agency to take reasonable risks by identifying what the clear goal is; ask yourself what the end accomplishment or KPI is, instead of jumping to the conclusion of “we need to do something different.”
  • Awards are not the end goal for every agency partner. But they are important, because pursuing award-winning work encourages both agency and client to push the boundaries. The real correlation between awards and client business goals is in pushing the overall category to the next level.
  • To get the best talent working on your business, be the client that people love to work for. It is often a great client and not the most interesting work that attracts the top creative thinkers.
  • Agencies, especially large holding companies, need to take more responsibility and show a greater level of transparency, particularly in media buying, to build overall industry trust. Self-regulation, even within the tools themselves like Facebook and Twitter, is beneficial to everyone.
  • When AOR thinking is expected with project-based payment, it creates confusion in the relationship. This is more common in recent years as new payment structures have arisen. Have open discussions about expectations upfront.
  • The tough discussions, like nailing down an SOW, should be frank and open, and can be immensely beneficial in creating trust between client and agency.
  • Sometimes a long-standing relationship can get in the way of openness; a tight friendship can make it hard to express unhappiness. Bringing in a middle partner, like a consultant, is actually a very successful tactic in encouraging the openness that these relationships need.
  • A big challenge for clients is the desire to use local talent but deliver a brand consistently around the world. Finding new ways to work with agencies and their partners, especially those in an agency network, is a process that requires communication to navigate successfully.

It seems to really all come down to one thing: candid, clear, transparent communication is key in building the strongest agency-brand partnerships. As Beth Brady wisely summed it up: “We are in the business of communication. If we can’t communicate amongst ourselves, then how can we think we can communicate with all those people who we want to buy our products and trust us to be a provider of whatever we do, whether it’s soup or financial advice?”