Fear and flattery from your agency partners will get you both nowhere

Having conditioned your agencies for deference, they now favour flattery over frankness. This harms your interests as much as it does theirs.

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Let’s try a little experiment. Close your eyes and recall the last time you were scared. I don’t mean mildly ‘horror film’ scared, I mean genuinely fearful for your future. 

Focus on how you felt. Maybe you were tense, anxious or irritable. 

I bet you didn’t feel especially innovative. Perhaps work became a real slog – especially if having good ideas is a big part of your job. 

Okay, relax. You’re back in the room. Sorry, that wasn’t super fun, was it? 

Anyway, here’s a newsflash… your agencies are scared. Often of you. And here’s another truth bomb: that’s as big a problem for you as it is for them. 

Hiding behind the sofa

Recently, one of my agency clients received a Request For Proposal (RFP) from a global blue-chip company. It was a high-profile brand, with an exciting brief and the agency in question had plenty of relevant experience.

Unfortunately, the RFP stipulated 120 payment terms, which was a big problem for the agency. So what did they do? 

Essentially, nothing. Despite being a great fit for the client, they didn’t feel they had permission to push back. Rocking the boat felt tantamount to firing themselves from the process. 

That is pure fear. 

Cultivating agency fear

Maybe you’re thinking “so what?”. Let’s try another example.

Ever been in a pitch where the agency has been all over you like a rash; gushingly and arse-clenchingly trying to get on your good side? You know the deal. It’s all, “oh, thank you SO much for the opportunity” and “we’d LOVE to work on your AMAZING brand”. 

Pretty grim, right? I’ve just been a bit sick. Perhaps you were too. Frankly, I hope so. Your ego really doesn’t need this kind of servile nonsense. And if it does, you need a hug, not an agency.

If you encourage agencies’ shallow flattery, then you’re signalling loud and clear you’re their all-powerful overlord.

When agencies bend over backwards to make you feel special, their fear is as clear as day. Unless they declare their undying love, then you’ll leave them for someone else. It’s anxious attachment 101. 

Again, let’s be clear, why should you care? After all, what’s a bit of brown-nosing between friends, sorry, partners

It matters because their power is a proxy for yours. 

Strong marketers need strong agencies

Clearly, your fortunes are tied to those of your agencies. The more empowered and effective they are, the better your career prospects. That’s why it’s so odd that many marketers choose to systematically weaken their agencies. 

This short-termism is most obvious in the relentless squeezing of agency fees. With any luck, your agency might still have enough creativity and willing youngsters to keep things on track, but you can’t keep squeezing forever. 

Ultimately, low profits mean you get lesser talents. I mean, surely that’s obvious? We’ll return to that Gordian Knot in a future column. 

For now, notice the early warning signs. If you encourage agencies’ shallow flattery, then you’re signalling loud and clear you’re their all-powerful overlord. This doesn’t foster innovation. At best you’ll get fearful and conservative thinking. 

Get serious about partnership

A powerful step forward is found in language. As with many overused words, our industry’s vague aspiration to ‘partnership’ reveals a tell-tale lack of conviction. 

Clients and agencies alike – especially the agencies – love to describe themselves as partners. But the reality is that all parties understand the word differently. 

Procurement immediately think of the commercials, and marketers typically see partnership as agencies going above and beyond (also known as over-servicing).

‘The lights went out’: Why a flurry of brands are calling time on long-term agency partnerships

But when agencies pause to consider what partnership means to them, it’s usually just being treated with basic courtesy. That’s a recipe for co-dependence, not a productive relationship. 

Instead, imagine a version of partnership characterised by mutual respect and the freedom to challenge? 

Ensuring expertise has a voice

When humans feel safe, we have better ideas. What if your agencies were left in no doubt that you valued their expertise not their glad-handing? 

What if you helped them feel like peers? By gently discouraging their flannel and setting an explicit expectation that they always speak up, you’ll make it clear that to challenge is a necessity rather than a risk. 

When all ideas are welcome – from revolutionary thinking to simple expressions of doubt – you get full value from agencies and their precious external perspective. Clipping their wings is self-defeating. 

This doesn’t mean you always have to agree. Far from it. But it does create a culture of respect, with far less risk of sharp minds biting their tongues, when their interventions could be game-changing. 

If you don’t empower your agencies to rock the boat, their silence might well end up capsizing it. And that really is scary. 

Robin Bonn is the CEO of specialist consulting and coaching practice for agencies, Co:definery.