Building a Foundation for Trust in Client/ Agency Relationships

27 Feb

dreamstime_s_38659968Perhaps I was fortunate. Perhaps it was a sign of the times. When I began my career at J. Walter Thompson, we took great pride as an organization in the number of client relationships that we had, which were measured in decades. Clients such as Ford Motor Company, Unilever, Kellogg’s, Kimberly-Clark, Kraft Foods, and others were celebrated, revered, and nurtured.

Not unlike today, there were challenges to be faced and pressures to be dealt with, whether market-driven or internal.  So, what allowed those relationships to flourish through good times and bad?

The answer was simple. Trust and a mutual commitment to the partnership combined with alignment on business objectives.

Today it is believed that the average length of client-agency relationships is around 3½ years. Is this reduction in longevity correlated with the fact that there has been a slow, but steady erosion in the level of trust between advertisers and their agencies? Consider that a couple of years back, the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) conducted a survey and found that only 29% of its member marketers ranked the “current level of trust between client-side marketers and ad agencies as high.”

A waning level of trust can inhibit communication between stakeholders leading to difficulties that throttle the productivity of the partnership. Conversely, as Stephen Covey once said:

When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective.”

Thus, if you believe that stable, long-term strategic partnerships are more conducive to achieving an organization’s business and marketing objectives, then the obvious question is “How can we establish client-agency relationships that endure the test of time?” The answer seems obvious… addressing the issue of trust.

In our experience, there are three fundamental steps that can be taken to build and maintain trust between advertisers and their agency partners.

  1. Contractual agreement predicated on a “Principal-Agent” model – Simply put, in this type of relationship the agency is charged with acting on the client’s behalf and in their best interest. This legally binds the agency to always put the client’s interests first and eliminates their ability to benefit from the relationship at the client’s expense. One of the beneficial outcomes of this type of model is that the client can take solace in knowing that the advice and recommendations of the “Agent” is more likely to be unbiased. In the event that an agency recommends the consideration of principal-based or inventory media buys or the use of or procurement of services/products from a related party of the agency, then the agreement language should require full-disclosure and prior written client approval.
  2. Periodic agency contract compliance and financial management reviews – Having a sound contract in place is a positive step in the right direction. However, if an agency’s compliance with contract terms and conditions is uncertain then achieving the desired level of trust may be elusive. Given industry concerns regarding transparency, all stakeholders will benefit from an independent evaluation of compliance and performance. Further, knowing that there will be an additional layer of oversight inspires stakeholders on both sides of the partnership to uphold the client organization’s desired levels of governance and transparency established within the agreement. This is not a sign of mistrust, but a signal of an advertiser’s commitment to the principle of “assurance.” As the saying goes: “In God we trust, all others we audit.”
  3. Establishing a fair and compelling agency remuneration program – Properly compensating agency partners is fundamental to securing the requisite level of support and bolstering an agency’s commitment to its fiduciary role. Additionally, a well-paid agency is less likely to engage in practices such as the pursuit of vendor kickbacks, the application of non-transparent mark-ups, profiting from the use of client funds, or the unauthorized use of sub-contractors and related parties. Contractual language capping agency revenue to that which is authorized within the agreement and subsequent statements of work will also protect the advertiser from these tactics and help curtail agency temptation to inappropriately supplement its income at the expense of its fiduciary obligations to its clients.

We have seen firsthand the benefits of this proven formula in promoting transparency and bolstering an organization’s trust in its agency partners. Thus, marketers and their agency counterparts should consider embracing this approach to strengthen and reinforce long-term agency-client relationships by ensuring a solid footing.

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