Value of an Agency: Partner or Supplier?

Partner or Supplier?

Simon Brown, Account Director

It’s been an interesting few months for me having recently made the move to the other side of the desk and back into agency life. After six years running the PR and communications for Costcutter Supermarkets Group, I took the decision to check out and take a fresh challenge with Acceleris.

Having spent all of my pre-Costcutter career in agencies this was a move that I made with plenty of ‘inside information’ about the workings of agencies. And it’s this experience, coupled with my learnings in-house, that I hope I can use to offer an alternative point of view on how agencies and businesses need to work together to deliver the best results.

I never imagined that I’d one day quote the New Radicals song You get what you give to make a point about how working relationships should work, but there you have it. As well as topping the charts in Canada and New Zealand, it seems Gregg Alexander has hit the nail on the head, highlighting that these relationships cannot just be one way.

A real bugbear of mine working in previous agencies was that it could feel a bit disconnected from the clients. Not geographically, although I was working for companies all over the UK, but disconnected from the heartbeat of their business, the strategic reasoning behind a chosen course of action, the real ‘why are we doing this?’. The agency would deliver against the brief and generate some great results, but it could feel a bit detached and, beyond a few predetermined metrics to define success, it was often difficult to determine the real value that we had added.

In-house couldn’t be more of a polar opposite, with total immersion from day one. In my particular situation I was the only PR person in the business, with all eyes on me for the creation and delivery of the PR strategy. This situation quickly led me to ask the question, why would a business keep their agencies at arm’s length? After all, I faced the challenge of delivering the PR activity for the business, on my own. When I did secure budget to bring in external support it had to be done in a way that would give the business, and me, the absolute best chance of success.

In my opinion there are two types of agency relationships – the Supplier and the Partner. As you might have guessed I favour the partner approach and this is certainly how I tried to do things at Costcutter. Retail is an exceptionally fast moving industry, convenience even more so with many changes in the sector over the last few years and more to come as signalled by the various deals and mergers that are underway. This brought with it a seemingly endless run of communications requirements – both opportunities and challenges to be managed. Keeping my specialist communications advisors at arm’s length and briefing them on a project by project basis simply wouldn’t have worked.

By being open with your agency and giving them the ‘big picture’, warts and all, they can analyse the current situation and the road ahead and then present their expert advice. Having this open stance with your advisors will deliver better results. One of the many idioms doing the rounds describes communications as a ‘journey’ and while I am not usually a fan of such corporate jargon it’s as good a description as any for how to approach strategic communications. In the same way that a business wouldn’t expect to deliver its entire strategy in one go, communications is a journey that your audiences need to be taken on. It won’t be a flat straight road and there will be plenty of ups and downs, so giving your agency the big picture will enable them to give really meaningful advice and create plans that deliver for the long term. After all, that’s what they do and what you pay them for.

Businesses surround themselves with trusted advisors to help deliver their strategy. Lawyers, accountants, business consultants, growth strategists and HR advisors are all consulted, and rightly so. They are experts in their field and will help shape the future direction of the business, identify the opportunities and put the resource in place to deliver it. Communications advisors are experts too, yet many businesses don’t place similar importance on the need to embed communications into their strategy or view their agencies as trusted advisors.

So, having moved back into agency am I faced with the same bugbear of old? Absolutely not. A good friend of mine often reminds me that people buy people and so as much as Acceleris did its homework before appointing me, I also did mine. Acceleris is very proud of the relationships it has with its clients and through the delivery of sound, insight-based advice it is a trusted advisor to its clients. A partner in creating communications strategies that deliver the right result.

“Communications is a journey that your audiences need to be taken on.”

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