5 Guidelines To Get The Best Possible Work From Your Agencies & Consultants

Last week I received what could have been the rudest, most juvenile and disrespectful email of my career. It came from a prospective client to whom my company and I were highly recommended by her former boss, the SVP of Global Insights for a Fortune 50 company. I’ll spare the gory details, but it was essentially a nonsensical, narcissistic and completely inappropriate rant demanding that “the pestering had to stop” after I had written a follow up email, at her request, to set a time for a phone call.

You think someone might have been having a bad day? It would be fun to psychoanalyze this person, parsing the frustrations and personality flaws that led to this misplaced burst of anger, but you just have to chalk it up as an expected consequence of working in a service business. It’s just Chinatown, Jake. Right?

This could easily have turned into a rant, but that wouldn’t be helpful. What kind of marketer would I be if I made this all about me? Better to talk about what you can learn from this exchange to do your job more effectively.

There is certainly no shortage of books, H.R. workshops and courses on management and motivation. Still, in my experience, marketing executives who really understand how to coax great work from agencies and consultants are few and far between.

It all starts with the understanding that marketing service people are different. You’re dealing with independent, sensitive, creative people. For you to even consider then, they are likely to be highly intelligent, successful and capable as well. The usual rules will not always apply.

There are big personal and professional payoffs to be had by dealing with your outside agencies, those you work with now and those you may work with in the future. It’s never easy getting great work from creative people, but it doesn’t have to be a battle, either.

Establish the right kind of working relationship and you’ll have people going out of their way to make you look good.

1.      Choose your partners wisely and let them do what they do best.

By far, this is the most difficult of all five guidelines to follow. Because the choice isn’t about the agency, it’s about you. About knowing who you are, what you want and what you truly need.

Many people, in their private lives, spend years in therapy and never figure this out. It’s no different in business.

You have to ask yourself, are you and your company truly after innovation, or do you just want to make sure you don’t lose shelf-space at Wal-Mart? Is your product and corporate personality better suited to a solid, “slice-of-life” ad (Enterprise Rental Car, “We’ll pick you up,” e.g.) approach or something over the top (Axe personal care products, e.g.)?

The point is, you might think you want innovation and creativity, but in reality, if your company is a global behemoth and every marketing message needs to be distilled to the same three words on every package everywhere in the world, an “innovative” agency will drive you crazy. Conversely, if you’re the hot new technology company but think there’s a need to “grow up” and get a “mature” agency that understands the mainstream, you’ll be equally frustrated.

Agencies do what they do. Once you look at their work and peruse their website, it’s not all that hard to figure out. Forcing them to “do it your way” will result in bad feelings and watered down work that no one is happy with.

2.      Strike the word “vendor” from your vocabulary.

We have come to a time where procurement departments of large companies are vetting creative proposals. Yes, the same folks that are making sure you get the lowest possible prices on ink cartridges and light bulbs now have a voice in the company’s marketing decisions.

If you’re on the service side, forget about “partnership” status, even in name only. In reality, marketing service companies are rarely even referred to as “suppliers” anymore. They’re “vendors.”

While technically fitting the dictionary definition of “a person or agency that sells,” agencies and other marketing service firms offer something far more valuable than simple commodities. Vendors sell stuff, like office supplies or fabric. Some pens are better than others, but at the end of the day, the pen you use to jot down your notes won’t affect the course of business.

Marketing service firms are not interchangeable like pens or staplers. They are real people, unique human beings who generate specific ideas to move your business ahead.

Perhaps you’ve never thought of it before, but the term “vendor” is disrespectful and inappropriate. It costs you nothing to say “agency,” “consultant,” “research firm” or even “marketing partner.” It may sound like a small thing, but it’s not.

As David Ogilvy famously said, “clients get the advertising they deserve.” So ask yourself. Do you want the work of a “vendor” or the work of a “partner?” Your choice.

Words matter. Especially to creative people charged with developing the right marketing communications for your business. Choose your words thoughtfully and you’ll see a significant increase in enthusiasm, creativity and productivity from your outside agencies.

3.      Rise to every occasion. Be a diplomat, not a victim.

It’s not pretty out there. Business has never been stress free, but it seems to be getting uglier by the day. The average tenure of CMO’s and other marketing executives is short. It’s exceedingly rare to find people that have worked for just one or two companies their entire careers.

If you work in marketing, the odds are good that at some point in your career – especially at the more senior levels – you’ll get fired outright or laid off when your company decides to downside or gets bought or sold.

Layered on to that foundation of stress is the blessing of technology that forces you to be on the job 24/7, most likely without the benefit of an assistant or any support staff.

This makes for cranky people. Most of us understand the importance of being polite, saying please and thank you, and dealing with others with respect.

But sometimes we forget. Back-to-back meetings, more than a hundred emails and dozens of voice messages a day can do that to you. As inexcusable as it was, it’s not hard to understand the underlying stress at the root of the over-the-top email I described in the first paragraph.

The urge to be nasty must be resisted! So must the urge to play the victim. Yes, you’re so busy. You and everyone else in the business world. Interestingly enough, the more senior people in the client companies I deal with seem to respond much faster than middle and junior level people. This holds true whether we’re actively engaged in a project or simply staying in touch.

One CMO of a Fortune 100 company I worked with responded to emails within a half-hour. Few of us may have that kind of discipline or talent for multi-tasking, but the SVP/EVP and C-level executives seem to respond much more promptly. And politely. If they can do it, so can marketers at the Manager and Director levels.

This isn’t rocket science. It’s Human Nature 101. The more you pay attention to people, the more respect with which you treat them, the more motivated they will be to support you. If you’re slow to respond to emails in the course of doing business, if  your agencies are out of the loop, it sends them the “vendor” message. They will respond with “vendor” quality work and “vendor” levels of service.

For dealing with the multitudes of agencies and consultants who want your business, you have to ask yourself, “Will this company or person ever matter to me in the future?”

Last week I blew off someone who called me from India trying to sell me quantitative research (we don’t do it), and then qualitative research recruiting and focus group facilities in India, where I’ve never worked. I anticipate no negative consequences.

However, if there’s one degree or less of separation on LinkedIn between you and the person calling, a polite one or two sentence note back is a much better idea than a nasty response or no response at all. In our small, LinkedIn, digital world of business, it’s never a good idea to burn bridges.

4.      Manage the creative process, but don’t micromanage.

Jay Chiat was quite upfront with clients. “We’re the experts, you’re not. Get out of our way and let us do our work.”

Kind of condescending, isn’t it? But when you put the tone aside and focus on the essence of what he was saying, he was right. You understood the need for outside expertise, so you went out and got it. You’re not a writer or a designer with a portfolio full of successful work so you turned to the pros.

Write a killer brief, then get out of their way, and again, in Jay’s words, “let the magic happen.”

It’s your job to make sure that the work is on strategy. That’s a huge responsibility, and no easy task. A less “creative” solution that is on strategy will probably be more beneficial than “creative” work that’s not.

Focus your agencies relentlessly on the brief and don’t worry so much about the font or the shade of teal they’re recommending. When I work with creative people, designers especially, that’s all I do. I think I know “great design” when I see it, but when I see work that starts to push me out of my comfort zone – as most great, breakthrough work tends to do to us – sometimes I’m not so sure.

So I always trust the experience, wisdom and creative instincts of the people I hire. Because I chose my partners wisely at the outset, I know I can count on their recommendations to be spot on. A “win-win” as they say. Our clients get effective work. They’re happy so I’m happy. And our creative people are happy because they had the freedom to flex their creative muscles and have some fun. They’ll be even more motivated for the next assignment.

5.      Always say three nice things first.

One of my professors in grad school taught us this on the first day of class and I’ve never forgotten it. It’s amazingly simple and has always served me well.

Unless you’re ready to fire someone on the spot, never, never, begin your response to a creative presentation with “here are my concerns.” Things have nowhere to go but downhill from there. There is generally something nice to say, and if not, make it up. “I love how you’ve pushed the envelope here! What an interesting choice of words, I hadn’t thought of that before. This layout will really stand out.”

Your next statement might start with “however” and the “concerns” will be aired, but you’re starting from a position of strength. Creative people – me included – respond very well to this “buttering up.” Criticism, constructive or not, is far more easier to take with an inflated ego.

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