At the Cannes Lions Festival last June, one of the highlights of the week was a head-to-head between American Dan Wieden (of Wieden+Kennedy) and Brit Sir John Hegarty (of BBH). Each talked about the great work done by the other, and shared work that had shaped their agencies since 1982.
At the very heart of these two agencies are the fine threads that define truly great partnerships between clients and their agencies, the essential ingredients that create loyalty, and the breeding ground for great work.
In the case of Wieden+Kennedy, Nike was its very first client and remains so today. But the fascinating thing was that Nike didn’t actually believe in advertising and didn’t want to play by the rules. It wanted something different — and couldn’t understand why brands ran a TV commercial more than once. Who wanted to see the same commercial again? And how could Nike ensure that its work would redefine their relationship with sport, and get them believing that anything was possible?
Hegarty’s account had many parallels. Audi was his founding client. A reputation for great storytelling produced wonderful work that for years took our breath away — Levi’s Laundromat was one of the most famous of all time.
It was these early clients who would go on to set the tone for what both these agencies would be best known — incredibly brave, often controversial, hugely famous and successful work that built great brands. What they both built were agencies based on enduring partnerships that continue to deliver outstanding work after several decades.
Much as we like to think that there are loads of mitigating factors that define our business, we should never forget that at the end of the day, it is really about the work that has been developed to serve the needs, wants, and desires of consumers. That’s the basis upon which agencies have reason for a relationship with their clients, and around which they should focus all of their passion and collective energy if they are to be successful together.
A very clear vision of the kind of work for which an agency wants to be known is really important. This will make it easy for clients to decide whether they want to do business with the agency in the first place — whether it is the kind of company with which they want to build a relationship.
The deeper the relationship, the greater the understanding of the business and the category, the more the chance ideas will add value, challenge the norms, and build the business in new, unexpected ways. By giving agencies permission to search far and wide for great ideas, a client’s business will benefit exponentially from those ideas, and the relationship will grow in depth and value.
Clients who publicly show that they value their agency will win more than just great work. They will have everyone in the agency fighting to work on their project. They will have those people working harder and longer for them than they might for another client. They will have the agency honing its tools and approaches to better meet their needs. They will have people who understand their unique characteristics for innovation and product development.
Agencies have to find ways of ensuring that their clients feel the intensity of their commitment to them: that they see their passion for their business beyond the current project; that they show they are unconstrained by channel, deliverable, or platform; and that they pursue their interests as if they were their own — because they are. They have to keep pushing for more flexibility in their compensation structure so that they are rewarded for the value they can bring beyond the immediate project.
Uncannily, some of the most successful client-agency relationships involve the same clients. This suggests that it does take a certain type of client to create the chemistry with an agency upon which great things get built. So while Dan Wieden talks about his company’s deep relationship with Nike, so too does Bob Greenberg of R/GA. Greenberg founded his hugely admired agency 35 years ago. Its positioning as “the agency for the digital age” is hard to dispute when you bear witness to the work it is doing in partnership with Nike, for one.
Bob talks about fashioning R/GA’s offer around a new ecosystem for consumer experience, or “functional integration” — the evolution of vertical and horizontal integration that is the new holy grail. Unsurprisingly, the brands that have understood this shift are doing it best — the likes of Apple, Google, Coca-Cola, and Amazon. They put the consumer at the center of the experience, and surround that consumer with products and services to meet their individual needs.
So when Greenberg and Stefan Olander, Nike’s vice president of digital sport, presented together at Cannes, it was as one, with a shared vision of what they were trying to achieve, and how they had done so together for many years. There was mutual respect, credit given publicly, and real recognition that R/GA had played an instrumental part in Nike’s success, right through to the Nike+FuelBand launched earlier this year.
Acknowledging and celebrating this partnership, and not taking all the glory for himself, made Stefan Olander’s presentation even more compelling and admirable. As a result, it probably brought his brand more kudos from the audience.
Permission to Fail
In any great relationship, things don’t always go according to plan. Sometimes the very best ideas don’t translate. A brilliant identity for a global client is rolled out only to find that its performance in one part of the world is a monumental disaster. Or, the market fails to respond positively to the new positioning idea and the whole brand idea has to be rethought.
You should fire that agency instantly, right? It didn’t do its homework properly. It failed to exercise due diligence. It made you look foolish. You might even lose your job over it. The very best clients, though, know there is always risk involved when searching for great ideas. They have a pact with their agency partners to push together for great work. They are totally in it together, and have each other’s backs.
That doesn’t mean they aren’t tough. There are clear goals and objectives, and regular reviews against those. They hold themselves and their agencies accountable for the outcome of the work. They share the responsibility for getting it right.
Of course, not all matches are made in heaven, nor do they all last forever. Agencies have to guard against complacency and never take their clients for granted. They must never allow people to stagnate on a piece of business — they must always bring fresh, interesting people who challenge the status quo at the right time.
The best agencies never fall into the trap of giving clients what they think they will buy instead of the work they need. As a colleague often reminds me: “If there isn’t at least uncomfortable recognition in the work you present, you have probably not gone far enough.”
Sometimes you have to part ways. It has happened to all of us — whether it’s burnout, a lack of belief in a new team or the future direction of the business, misalignment of expectations, or the new marketing director or CEO deciding they need a fresh perspective.
The best partnerships ought to end by employing the same principles upon which they were built — mutual respect, gratitude for the good work you did together, and a sense of pride in having treated each other well throughout the relationship. That would make for the perfect end to a wholly satisfying client-agency partnership.
Investing time and effort in a post mortem can pay huge dividends for both parties, too. A review of highs, lows, and “learns” can reap untold benefit for both client and agency, and help everyone learn from the experience. At the end of the day, learning from what was both good and bad can only mean everyone is more likely to be a better partner in any future relationship. ■