Fair Exchange: Reap Rewards Through Inter-Agency Collaboration

20 Oct 2013|Erna George

Every now and then I cast my mind back to the days when I was a brand manager, and we worked with probably two partner agencies — one handling above-the-line work and the other our below-the-line activities. It was only every now and then that we made use of a specialist, such as a promotions or public relations agency.

Essentially, we would invest a massive amount of time and money to make that impactful television campaign, and all other elements flowed from this.

World has changed
Fast forward to 2013 and the world has changed. Between social media, PVRs and many other distractions and channels, making that impact has become tougher. And the buzz in the marketing corridors is the need to move (quickly) towards greater collaboration and exchange across agencies.

Today, clients are looking for agency partners that can synergise with other partners. The new exchange is cross-collaboration, and the days of one agency as the only — or the core — partner is over. As an analogy, think back to when Daewoo was selling cars, washing machines and air-conditioners; consumers found it tough to believe one brand could be great at it all. Similarly, it is difficult for clients to believe that one agency can be specialists in every area.

Clients are determined to use the best-of-breed from a spread of agencies, and are bringing in several to contribute to the creative process. Even though some of the bigger traditional above-the-line organisations have developed and stretched into multiple capabilities, even they will from time-to-time bring in other external specialists, such as space or stage designers or PR specialists.

Best poised to win
And, when it comes to pitches, there’s a move towards different agencies with different areas of expertise work-shopping a platform that can act as a springboard for any media. The idea that wins is then activated across the channels that fit the idea. And, it seems that those agencies collaborating and building their ideas beyond their area of expertise are best poised to win.

In the past two weeks, I have been working closely with an ad agency, providing the pitch team with market and consumer insights and strategies, to inform the central idea for a campaign that will take a brand into several markets beyond South Africa’s borders.

Yes, you read that correctly: a qualitative insight consultant collaborating with an ad agency. In the past, this has not been a natural partnership for many. Why?

Testing before investing
A good few above-the-line agencies do not believe in the value of ad testing, or in how ad testing is conducted. However, we both know clients want the idea to be tested before they invest in it.

So, in working together, we bring different expertise to the table and we learn about each others’ practices. We learn to trust each other’s skills and, in this more integrated journey, the next phases will yield a more natural consulting approach and a view on how to tackle a testing process we both believe in. The success will be all of ours.

If the ad agency succeeds in the markets my client wants to conquer, my client succeeds — and I am in some way a key aid in the process (this may yield more future work). I learn even more about my client’s brand journey and challenges, and become more entrenched. The exchange, though more complex, becomes fair and rewarding.

Lead role leads to other issues
But, many clients don’t want to co-ordinate the marketing effort that best-of-breed and collaboration demands. Instead, they require one of the agencies to take the lead role, and that leads to other issues.

Imagine being that big agency with several specialists in your stable, including digital. But, the client tasks said agency with traditional advertising and another digital specialist with digital.

Is the lead agency’s allegiance with that digital agency? As the lead agency, is it responsible for the digital agency’s delivery or any potential mistakes? Does the lead try to find a way to get its digital agency in the door? And how does it keep its digital agency MD at bay when he or she keeps demanding at board meetings that its attempts to get into that client and work are being blocked by a colleague? It is not easy but it is the new reality.

Finding the middle ground
Recently, I pitched for some work across Ghana and Kenya with a number of partners (the local agencies benefiting from fieldwork spend), plus an NGO which loaned finance for the technology being researched.

Even though we each stood to gain, it was a journey to work out what each of us would own and bring to the table. We each had our own agenda and point of view on how to approach the project. Finding the middle ground was not completely clear, so we decided to focus on winning the business first and dividing the so-called spoils afterwards. By setting the different agendas aside, we showed the client a united face … and, believe it or not, the entire process just fell into place.

How to manage the process
Today, and going forward, being a valuable, in-touch partner to clients will require you to integrate and collaborate with other agencies. To manage the process:

  • Define the outcome
  • Decide the lead (and co-ordinate to avoid mixed/multiple messages)
  • Specify roles and responsibilities
  • Create effective communication channels and shared operations
  • Formalise agreements on ways of working
  • Learn from each other and delight your clients.

Post originally written for MarkLives.

Erna George is the business director heading up quality research at brand development and marketing insight consultancy Added Value. She works with diverse brands and categories — from FMCG, alcohol and agriculture to financial services and entertainment — in countries across many geographies, including South Africa, Mozambique, Nigeria, Kenya, India, Philippines and Brazil. She contributes the monthly “Fair Exchange” column, about business relationships and partnerships in adland, to MarkLives.

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