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June 27, 2014 // 3:00 AM

How Your Agency Can Become a Partner, Not Just a Vendor

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agency-vendorAs marketers, we’re service providers. When it’s bad, we’re not much different than paperclip providers. Interchangeable commodities to be negotiated down to the lowest rate possible. In the end, it's just marketing, right?

That’s our industry’s fate if we’re treated only as vendors.

We strive to be more than vendors; we strive to be partners. It is analogous to a relationship with consumers. They can either be pushed toward a single transaction or toward a relationship of loyalty.

You can see it in the best brands. Those that treat their customers with respect also treat their service providers with respect. They’re the most successful. They’re the brands that people aspire to own, work for, and work with.

To be fair, there are agencies and service providers that aren’t deserving of that trust. There are those that too often act in their own short-term interest versus the brand’s long-term interest.

Here are four steps you can take to become an agency partner, not a vendor:

1. How you’re brought in matters.

It’s no secret as to what will be the deciding factor in procurement-led pitches. As a function, procurement is meant to compare apples to apples. With professional services, that often simply isn’t possible. Experience, chemistry, people, talent, and momentum are critical, and none of them fit nicely on a comparable spreadsheet.

When pitch consultants are engaged, the process becomes much more defined. The very fact that brands hire consultants shows recognition they understand agency selection isn’t your average procurement assignment. Similarly, when pitches are run directly by CMOs, there is a greater appreciation for finding a partner versus a vendor.

To start the relationship off right, always push to have marketing as involved as possible in the decision-making process.

2. Take it personally, and live it.

In a service industry, respect should be a given. If you don’t respect, you don’t deserve the business. When you make a client’s business your business, it’s amazing how quickly you’re seen as a partner, not a vendor. Beyond respect comes the ability to take your client’s business personally. How their business does should matter to you personally. It should matter on a human level, not just on a financial level.

You should be a customer. You should work in the stores. Do as much as you can to learn and experience as much as you can. And, you have to do it because you want to do it, not because you have to do it. Your motivation has to be true. It is a fine balance. You still have to maintain enough distance to provide the consultative perspective you’re paid for.

3. Don’t only focus on the CMO.

Often one of the best friends an agency can have is the COO. If you understand the operations of a company, you understand how they make money, where their pain points are, and where their goals are.

The input you give will be more meaningful and far reaching. You’ll have partner ideas, not vendor opinions. Partner ideas get you into the boardroom and C-suite conversations. Vendor opinions are often myopic, self-serving, uninformed, and a dime a dozen.

4. Stand up for yourself, and ask for it.

If you’re living the brand and you’ve made it personal, ask for it. Treat the word vendor like a four-letter word. Stop the conversation, and say, “I don’t like that word. It cheapens the relationship we have.” Or, “Vendor? Really? That’s all this is?”

Use the “V-word” as a start to a conversation to explain the difference. Like most things, if you don’t want to be seen that way, speak up.

Achieving partner-level status is going to become increasingly difficult. The very word partnership implies longevity. There are fewer and fewer agency of record (AOR) reviews. More and more clients are treating their marketing needs as assignments or projects instead of ongoing relationships.

The results are twofold. First, it is imperative to maintain and defend the partnership relationships you have. There is a constant need to surprise and delight. Nothing can be taken for granted.

The second, and more complicated, is how to approach project work? The same level of attention, care, and commitment can’t be given — and shouldn’t be. It becomes an agency decision: What proportional level of partnership-like attention is deserved for this project? And, what level of future potential can be hoped for? Every agency should have criteria driven by its mission to evaluate project opportunities and determine how much to commit to each request.

Finally, clients need to be truthful in their ask. Don’t say you want a partnership if all you’re willing to give in terms of time, access, resources, and commitment is a vendor-like engagement. Vendor or partner? Both are forms of a relationship. For either to work successfully, expectations need be clearly established from the onset.

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