New Year, new start – new agency?

Why it’s better to repair than replace a business relationship

managing business relationships
Marriage guidance or divorce lawyer?

Whether a business relationship or personal, if there’s one professional guaranteed to see an influx of new business in January, it’s the divorce lawyer. Statistics consistently show that divorces peak in the New Year, as Christmas proves the final straw for beleaguered couples. The pandemic also proved profitable for divorce lawyers, with many couples coming to the end of their tether due to unexpected enforced time together.

As in our culture, so it is in the marketing industry. The New Year brings resolutions, challenges, changes of approach and all too often, changes in business relationships.

The ‘pitch n shift’ mentality is alive and well in our industry and whilst sometimes the best thing to do is make a clean break and start anew with a different partner, in most cases it’s our belief that the pitch process is unproductive.

Pitching takes a toll

The impact of the pitch process is felt perhaps more significantly by agencies who can find their income streams severely affected, but clients don’t get away scot-free either, with the administrative and financial burden of the pitch process to manage not to mention onboarding and bedding in a new agency or agencies.

The valuable accumulated knowledge and experience between teams is disregarded and disposed of, frequently on a whim or driven by internal practices that demand periodic reviews.

And often, nothing actually changes except the name of the agency of record.

In the two decades we’ve been evaluating client-agency relationships, we have also discovered that unless there’s a fundamental change in the behaviour of the marketer client, eventually the same old problems will reoccur.

Much like the individual who leaves one partner for a shiny new model only to find themselves repeating history, without looking at their own behaviour and practices clients can find themselves simply trading in one problematic relationship for another. Our data has consistently demonstrated that ‘clients get the agencies they deserve’.

The case for sticking it out

Our data also shows that longevity can be an indicator of a productive relationship. As teams move through a process of six-monthly evaluations, satisfaction scores within the relationship increase meaning it’s both realistic and reasonable to expect relationships to improve over time.

The charts below demonstrate that, over an 18 month period, improvements are shown for agencies in their media buying, and for clients in their briefing. We see this pattern across most attributes of most business relationships.

Team improvements over time
Team improvements when managed
Source: Aprais database 25,000 evaluations

A commitment to the evaluation process itself is a safeguard against relationships breaking down or failing. It’s not a magic bullet, of course, but often it’s not a dramatic event or rupture but undetected or unacknowledged small changes in the relationship that lead to deeper and more fundamental problems in the long-term.

A process of regularly checking in can help identify the core issues and at Aprais, we have witnessed failing relationships turn around, but it’s imperative that both parties support the process. Problems won’t be solved if only one party is held responsible for changing their behaviours. As the song goes, it takes two.

The power of lasting relationships

Data from Spark Foundry, a global media agency brand within the Publicis Groupe, demonstrates that clients and agencies alike believe longevity in relationships drives stronger brand performance, creativity and positively impacts agency staff retention.

Longer-lasting business relationships generate creativity and innovation.

The study of agency and marketing professionals from all disciplines and major industry verticals found creativity and innovation both flourish in longer-term relationships, and that enduring partnerships create greater efficiency and effectiveness as well as boosting trust at C-suite level. Read more here.

Beware the divorce lawyer acting as marriage counselor

Some consultants do a very good business by managing agency pitches. Don’t get me wrong, It’s an important and valuable function no doubt. However, there is a clear and critical conflict of interest when the same party acts as a client-agency relationship consultant. Think poacher turned gamekeeper.

For this reason, Aprais we only focus on building stronger relationships. Which means we are trusted by all parties with no hidden agenda. We do not get distracted by agency searches, fee negotiations or running pitches.

How to keep relationships healthy
  1. Make improving the health of the relationship the focus of evaluations – not financial remuneration. Linking income to evaluations is commonplace but this shifts the focus away from the relationship itself. Our data also suggests that the most successful evaluation structure is co-funded by both client and agency.
  2. Ensure evaluations are two-way, not just focused on the agency. Remember clients get the agencies they deserve.
  3. Evaluate regularly – our data shows six-monthly is the optimal structure for consistent improvement.
  4. Use a detailed scale – there is much more scope for nuance and detail using a 100-point scale than a simple five or ten-point scale, and progress is more easily tracked and measured – and encouraged.
  5. Challenge the status quo. Our data shows the best business relationships are characterised by a willingness to do so and the weakest, by a reluctance to do so.