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Think partnership, not service: What brands really want from agencies

By Lizz Kannenberg / January 2, 2019

If you’ve ever worked at an agency, you’ve probably wished that you could read the mind of your client. I spent my 10 years on the agency side trying to understand and anticipate my clients’ needs and behaviors, from how they really felt on our last status call to why they brought on that other agency, so I can definitely empathize.

At the most recent Sprout Social Agency Partner Summit, I had the chance to grant that wish for our 200 attendees. I sat down with Pooja Van Dyke, Associate Director of CreativeWorks at ESPN, Kamilah Jones, VP of Marketing at New Teacher Center and Becky Chandler, Senior Director of eCommerce at U.S. Cellular—people I’ve had the opportunity to work with and get to know over the years—to talk about what they as in-house marketers want from their agency partnerships.

“Partnership” is the key word here. Whether it’s between you and the in-house team, or you and other agencies supporting your client, thinking partnership instead of service is the new black. Our three powerhouse panelists—whose rich experience covers digital UX, ecommerce, nonprofits, studio creative production and brand marketing—all made that clear. Below are the biggest takeaways from our conversation.

Coaching is part of the job

The group agreed that in such a rapidly evolving marketplace, agencies have to focus at least some of their efforts on digital thought leadership and education.

“You need to be a trusted source,” Van Dyke said. “Nine times out of ten, you’re going to have folks that don’t speak the digital language.”

Client-side marketers have so many hats to wear and initiatives to juggle, they have to be able to look to you as their partner to know what’s coming next. Educate your clients so they understand the full scope of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. This transparency will help them to feel like they are in control of their business while trusting you as a digital marketing expert.

“What I’ve always needed from an agency is someone that will help me keep my job,” Jones said. “We’re putting our full careers in your hands. So really we want that deep partnership.”

Agencies today have to position themselves as consultative partners, capable of delivering much more involved value to the organization as a whole. To that end, you’ll want to resist the idea that your client is just a problem to solve, or that you’re merely providing creative services.

Data first, creative second

I don’t want to break any hearts, but great creative services don’t differentiate your agency—they’re now table stakes. Leveraging data is a crucial way to stand out. Brands want to know that you understand their business, the industry and the competitive landscape. Show them you do by supporting your creative and strategic ideas with hard numbers.

“My biggest pet peeve line is, ‘Our creative team has a lot of heart for that.’ Don’t say that,” Van Dyke said. “Bring some data to the table to show us why this idea is better than our idea. As long as you can be super transparent but also have the data to back it up, you’ve got my ears.”

In the days of one-size-fits-all marketing, CMOs simply asked, “What’s the best way to boost sales?” Raising awareness of the product was typically the answer and developing a creative ad campaign was often the best tactic. But brand awareness isn’t enough today—you need to create a great customer experience, especially considering 86% of CMOs and senior marketing executives believe they’ll own the end-to-end customer experience by 2020.

For agencies, this means embracing the data-driven approach that consultants have long championed to think more like a marketer. Leverage metrics to understand what customers want. Because your agency needs to provide not only the right messaging, but also the right tools to drive that message and measure the results. Otherwise, the efforts of your creative work won’t go very far.

The dirtiest words in agency life: “interagency team”

Your client isn’t your only partner. Digital marketing demands are constantly evolving and brands need access to more varied specialties and expertise. Yep, that often means different agencies for different areas of focus. It’s easy to see these other agencies as the competition, but doing so can often curb the success of both shops.

It’s time to start thinking of your client’s other agencies as your partners, too. To put that in action, U.S Cellular’s Chandler recommends level-setting up front and holding regular interagency meetings to share ideas, define responsibilities and agree on a consolidated plan.

“We try to be very clear about what we want each partner to lead with and how they compliment each other,” Chandler said of her interagency team. “Get everybody on board up front so that you can tell when somebody’s really trying to be a partner or when they’re overstepping their bounds.”

Collaborating with your client’s agency partners can seem daunting, so try to focus on how diversity of thought can be the rising tide that lifts all boats. If you keep an open mind, you’ll build valuable relationships, learn from them and improve the quality of your work.

The partnership is the prize

Wish you knew what your client was thinking? Cultivate a partnership. Build an open, collaborative relationship and you’ll know what your client wants and expects.

A partnership has benefits beyond better campaigns.

“A successful piece of content isn’t the most impressive part of the client/agency relationship, it’s how we got there,” Van Dyke said.

If all the headlines about transformation in the digital marketplace have taught us anything, it’s that trust is the ultimate currency. That’s why both agencies and brands need to shift their focus from quick wins to long-term partnership. Within the course of that relationship, there will be successes and failures. There will be experiments that pay off and others that won’t. But at the end of the day, it’s about making sure that all stakeholders have skin in the game and come out on top—as a unified team.

Lizz Kannenberg

Lizz Kannenberg

Lizz Kannenberg is the Director of Brand Strategy at Sprout Social. Kannenberg is a career strategist and creative lead for social content. She has developed and executed social content campaigns for CPG, automotive, alc/bev, government and lifestyle clients by creating credible, compelling conversations between brands and communities. Offline she can usually be found playing bass in an indie rock band or out exploring with her husband and young son.
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