Shift Happens

What came first? Change in the way humans live, buy and share information, or was it new technology that disrupted life as usual?

Either way, shift happens. For the fast and flexible, that shift is an exciting opportunity; for the slow and established, it is a scary proposition.

I have been given the opportunity to build a new agency under a new holding company during the greatest shift in the marketing communications industry that I can remember. Along with my team, we have decided that it is time to disrupt a system and an industry that can do better. We are experienced agency folks who know what works and what doesn’t and we believe two critical areas are ripe for change: the relationship and how data informs the way we work.

The relationship is the most important aspect of building success between client and agency. A more modern spin on a successful relationship — even when one partner is paying — is based on mutual trust and sharing, period. In other words, it’s not only about the client and it’s not only about the agency. The magic happens in the middle, where respect, culture and most importantly, sharing of information happens.

So, what do we mean by sharing of information? We work in the age of big data, data mining and data sharing. We must connect more information than ever before to provide insights that help develop business solutions with a higher certainty of outcomes.

This is no easy task.

We can’t make it up and we can’t fake it.

Often public relations is brought in to develop messaging, identify channels or work to place stories among influencers and media. However, to successfully move forward with those steps, there is work that needs to be done first. It starts with asking WHY we are doing it. What is the business goal? Once that is clear, we can build a hypothesis that can be proved or disproved by analyzing customer data and interaction.

Until recently, measuring agency success of PR programs has been elusive. Even with metrics in place, PR was not always solving the business problem, and even if it was, it couldn’t get the credit. Our industry needs a new mindset along with new skill sets to harness data; this is true for agency and in-house communications departments alike.

Ultimately, effective use of data can move the PR industry from guessing to knowing. We call it predictive communications, and it can only happen in a true partnership where information — both inside and outside the company — is shared, along with a carefully ordered road map that sets the stage for success. It is a new order that puts communications at the table earlier in the process.

Without the clear identification of business goals and analyzing customer data from both inside and outside the organization, communicators may not be solving the right problem, and consequently, unsuccessful in making a measurable difference. As shift happens, the client-agency partnership needs a new mindset about the role of its communications counsel and how it will harness and share data. #modernagency

This blog post also appears on Medium 

Complacency – It’s Real

Full disclosure: I worked on the same client for approximately 12 years.  In the agency world, that’s an eternity.  There were a lot of highs and a few lows – that’s normal for any agency-client relationship.  What’s not normal is working on the same client for so long.  PR agencies seem to convince themselves that extended continuity on a client is a selling point or a badge of honor – while other agency partners outside the PR space seem to change out people every six months.

It’s a double-edged sword. Continuity and long service on a piece of business allows for intimate knowledge into a client’s innerworkings and desires, but at the same time, it allows account teams to fall into the dreaded trap of complacency.

We work on the same pieces of business and deal with the ebbs of flows of working with clients.  They can be fantastic, fulfilling relationships – usually sprinkled with a dash of frustration and tongue biting.  Client work can end up taking you to trade shows, far-flung locales, crazy events and everything in-between.  But after the dust settles, you’re back to the status calls, client meetings and brainstorms.  It can – and does – get repetitive.

It’s usually a slow deterioration.  You send new recommendations that your team is excited about.  You’re armed with insights and research backing up your ideas.  Your team nails it in the room.  But for whatever reason, the client passes.  You plead your case (or not) and lick your wounds.  And you keep trying and trying.  But then you make a standard recommendation because you know it’s going to get approved.  And it does.  This is the beginning of the slippery slope.

I’ve talked with coworkers about giving clients what they need versus what they want.  It’s hard when you try to advocate for your agency’s ideas and they get shot down.  Why keep fighting?  Why keep pushing your clients when you know they won’t approve something?  Because it’s what we need to do.  However, there are other approaches we need to take to ensure teams do not start mailing it in on their clients’ behalf.  We must:

  1. Change out team members on a regular basis.  Workers get bored and frustrated with clients.  We need to keep client teams fresh and invigorated.
  2. Don’t get frustrated.  If you throw 100 ideas at a client, the 99th may be the one they ultimately choose.  Continue to be proactive and informed about your clients’ challenges so you can anticipate their needs.
  3. Broaden your scope of information sources – in this day and age, your worldview is hyper-cultivated to fit your beliefs.  Open your mind to different strains of information – it will help you in the end.

Ultimately, for a truly successful client-agency relationship, the client needs to be on board.  Clients need to be open to fresh ways of thinking and welcome new agency team members.  They need to arm agency partners with the information, background and insights to ensure on-strategy recommendations and a healthy, long-lasting relationship.


This blog post also appears on Medium 

Why Doesn’t My Agency Get Me?

In a recent leadership group discussion with CMOs and CCOs, I heard questions and comments such as:

Why doesn’t my agency get me?

Stop selling me.

Don’t tell me about another methodology, everyone has one.

These are fair comments that do not signal a strong partnership between agency and client, and frankly, the client isn’t the only one complaining. Why is there frustration on both sides? This got me thinking about relationships. A client-agency relationship should be no different from any good partnership, personal or professional. The good ones are mutually beneficial, communicate truthfully and treat each other fairly. When it comes to business partnerships, companies don’t choose companies, people choose people.

Let’s Blame the Client First

The breakdown can begin early and is sometimes the fault of an organization and its process for selecting an agency. Often this process is shrouded in secrecy, doesn’t provide any meaningful interaction among the people who may be working together in the future, and the problem is exacerbated by being procurement-led. The most important part of getting to know and understanding someone is the time spent talking with them. Meaningful interaction has different meaning to different people, especially in a time of texting, tweeting and emailing, but old rules still apply: face-to-face interaction helps build trust. An important aspect of those connections is the sharing of pertinent information. For some reason, there is a prevailing thought that the client can get to know the agency by “testing” them. Perhaps there can be a benefit to the idea of putting a potential agency in “test” mode, but this is not realistic of how the agency and client will work together in the future. So why is it done during the most important time in relationship building? The best outcomes are realized through shared planning and discussion. More information and aligned expectations allows the agency to show their best work and the client to choose the best fit for their organizational culture and business needs.

Chemistry is a Science, Not a Feeling

Meeting at the formal presentation for the first time is the most peculiar and detrimental action of all. No one in that room — the client team judging the presentation or the agency presenting — are in a “real” working environment behaving how they would day-to-day. Sometimes these formal meetings are called a “chemistry check.” Really? Chemistry is the branch of science that studies the properties of matter and how matter interacts with energy — one meeting or interaction is not an effective way of measuring positive or negative energy — nor does it represent the many different scenarios or personalities that will be working together in a long-term partnership.

Now Let’s Blame the Agency

After all, the agency is the one getting paid; they should be on their best behavior. Agency teams mean to behave appropriately, but are not set up to do so. The misalignment in operational and financial structures are often the culprit. A fragmented P&L structure, either by geography or practice area, does not encourage collaboration or making the right choice for the client. This structure has agency leadership worried about “hitting a number” instead of putting the needs of their partner first.

Lack of scalability and having to keep everyone billable affects quality of service, often putting “who is available” on the business instead of the right talent. It often builds an atmosphere of nervousness to remain billable no matter what, and can lead to doing the wrong work. Additionally, the billable hour encourages clients NOT to call its agency. It may be time to rethink the compensation model for a true agency-client partnership.

Adding to the frustration felt by clients is the agency’s need to entice the client with methodologies that are all about “our process.” I can’t think of the last CMO or CCO that wanted to hear about how the agency sausage-making works. Spending time focused on solutions to business challenges or telling clients something they don’t know is how the C-Suite wants to spend time with its agency, not learning how it gets done. Methodologies should be about adapting solutions to problems and leveraging new tools. Talking about it is exhausting; integration and operational excellence to get the job done is all the client wants.

A Partnership that Communicates

A strong partnership needs consistent, open communication right from the start. The client should set the stage with a selection process that includes an investment of time spent providing information and building a relationship. The agency needs to fit the client’s organizational culture and stay focused on listening and solving their problems. Together, the client-agency relationship can flourish into a true partnership that results in a mutually-beneficial outcome.

Communications’ Role in Transformation

Communications is the heartbeat of change, constantly providing information flow to many places and people so change can happen effectively.  To make change, new mindsets and behaviors need to happen.  Without it, there is no change; there is only confusion, chaos and “I don’t get it” from the people you need most to embrace it, or at least understand it.  That is true both inside the organization and externally to customers.  Relevant explanation timed to reach folks before and during the transformation process will set the guidelines for expected behaviors and new thinking and ultimately move the transformation along a faster path to success.  At any given time, organizations are in transformation.  Sometimes transformation stems from a department that has been tasked with thinking differently about a product, while other times it’s a company-wide initiative driven by market needs, revenue failures or new leadership teams.  In cases of company-wide transformation, a vision is often announced, but the real effectiveness comes in from the continuous sharing of information and updates that can bring your employees and customers along the journey.

Ambiguity during transformation is always viewed negatively, ongoing updates and checkpoints can calm rumors and stoke passion for the change.  Other times, the seeds of transformation are planted through a pivot within one area of an organization that can inspire the company and serve as building blocks for larger organizational change.  Communicating the thinking and reasoning for transformation can build excitement and prevent cynics from dooming it before it has even started.

In 2013, a casual dining chain was looking to reinvigorate its brand and present itself in new ways to new customers.  The company embarked on a transformation in the way it operated, the food it served, the people it hired and the experience it brought to its customers.  Every employee needed to understand the vision and stay focused on it as time progressed.  However, the company forgot to communicate the vision and its progress to key influential external audiences who continued to talk about the organization from an old point of view.  We helped develop a timeline of effective communications to influencers, analysts, the media and customers that turned those external audiences to not only understanding the transformation, but rooting for its success and celebrating milestones along the way.

Leaders need to develop a communications strategy early and be in lockstep with the transformation process.  Understanding what people need to know and communicating in ways that are relevant can speed up organizational transformation and have a positive impact on the bottom line.

Five Rules for Communicating Change:

  1. Know your audience intimately – the best way to communicate change is human-to-human
  2. Explain why
  3. Ensure the audience understands what is in it for them
  4. Act differently to signal change
  5. Measure effectiveness as you progress to recalibrate messaging as needed