M&C Saatchi Abel and Nando’s were awarded the Partnership of the Year award at the 2019 Financial Mail AdFocus Awards. Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL
M&C Saatchi Abel and Nando’s were awarded the Partnership of the Year award at the 2019 Financial Mail AdFocus Awards. Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL

One of the most important ingredients in an advertising agency’s ability to produce successful work for clients — work that moves brands and creates sales — is a solid relationship between agency and client. It’s an important business relationship based on clear deliverables which goes beyond each party merely liking the other, says Johanna McDowell, CEO of the Independent Agency Search & Selection Company, sponsor of this year’s FM AdFocus Partnership of the Year Award.

“Good relationships are about ensuring all the business principles are in place — that money is wisely spent and strong business metrics are agreed upon by both parties. In a healthy relationship, the agency understands the needs of the client, and is curious enough to ask questions. The better informed the agency is, the better the work it produces will be,” says McDowell, conceding that this is not an easy relationship to build. That said, she believes the alchemy of the relationship is critical.

Ultimately, a good relationship between agency and client is about trust. “A good agency should be in a position to point out that the agreed metrics are not being met, for example. Where there is a lack of metrics and deliverables, we tend to see meetings about meetings about meetings taking place. A creative idea must have a purpose and be rooted in a clear deliverable — if there is no planning, it’s easy for everything to fall apart and for money to simply be frittered away. A great agency will talk about what is working and what should be adjusted, but unless the agency has been properly briefed form the outset, they can’t evaluate the relationship for effectiveness,” McDowell says.

That said, not every client wants that type of relationship with its agency. “That’s a different type of relationship altogether — and not a partnership,” she says. McDowell says that while the term “partnership” is overused in the industry, she believes that in its truest sense the relationship is about working together as business partners to achieve certain goals.

She advises agencies and clients that are looking to build this type of partnership to start how they mean to go on. “What you see should be what you get,” she says, adding that while the relationship should be friendly, it should include clear boundaries and always be professional.

“It’s the small things that can destroy a relationship. Certain processes should therefore be put in place and agreed upon, such as sending contact reports within 24 hours when status meetings take place; as well as conversations around marketing plans, budgets and processes; how feedback is given and if there is any flexibility in terms of deadlines — on both sides. “Most problems occur around these very basic things,” she says.

In this economy, clients emphasise sales, innovation and loyalty. For McDowell, however, shared values around diversity in terms of race, gender and communities play an important role in the agency-client relationship. Authenticity from both sides is crucial, she says.