As both a supplier and buyer of marketing services, I’ve often grappled with what makes a relationship go sweet or sour. At a recent gathering of marketing directors from some of the UK’s leading firms, we discussed how to make a success of outsourced relationships. The discussion centred on how to get the most from relationships with PR and creative agencies as well as recruitment firms.

Each of the Insight Panel agreed that with the increased focus on efficiency and the desire to show a clear return on investment, the ability to manage external suppliers is absolutely fundamental to doing a good job.

First impressions count

Agencies vary wildly in their style and professionalism when making first contact. While there was some talk of agencies striking lucky with a sloppy cold approach which fell at an opportune time, the bulk of the advice was “if you want my attention as a prospective buyer, show you have done your homework and that your offering is directly relevant to me. If I feel that I am part of a shotgun approach, then you are immediately off on the wrong foot.”

You reap what you sow

One clear message to emerge was that the more you invest in a relationship as a buyer, then the more you will get in return. As Linda Stevens highlights, “clarity of brief is essential and if you have a dedicated procurement team, then tap into it to ensure that you get best value for money. It will also help you to avoid nasty surprises round the corner, for example by establishing at the outset who will own the intellectual property generated during the relationship”.

Amy Kingdon agrees that not only should the brief be crystal clear but you “must not be precious about keeping the relationship to yourself. If for example, you want a PR agency to be truly effective, you must give them a real feel for what you are doing, with insight into what your organisation is trying to achieve and good access to fee-earners.”

As Lee Grunnell points out, “in professional firms we all know what it’s like to be suppliers, we just need to be able to flip that knowledge to ensure that we manage the buying relationship well”. Recognise that of course it’s a two-way street, the relationship can only really fly if both parties contribute and rather than trying to hammer each other, adopt a “pastoral, open and communicative approach”.

Let’s stick together

Should we stick with one agency to benefit from their ingrained understanding of how our firm works and where it is aiming, or chop and change to ensure keen value and fresh ideas?

While Amy and Linda both saw merit in sticking with one supplier over time, it will only work if the agency does not become complacent. Both have experienced creative and PR agencies that have started to underperform and only really gone into overdrive when the contract is put out to tender. Like a personal relationship it’s necessary to keep some of that initial spark alive and to shake things up if you feel the agency is beginning to take you for granted. Too many agencies seem to be slipping into their comfy slippers and not making an effort beyond those early few dates. In this climate that just does not cut it anymore.

Another temptation to avoid is using an agency out of scope, giving them the nod because they are known and trusted even if the skill required is not their core strength – an example being when PR agencies are asked to take on event management. As Linda says, unless you are dealing with a truly full-service agency, this lazy buying could prove an expensive mistake for both sides.

As Lee has observed, it matters where you come in each agency’s pecking order. Even if agencies pretend they treat all clients equally, like professional firms of course the more important ones get greater love and devotion. He also thinks that chemistry plays a crucial role – and if there is little mutual respect and rapport, perhaps it is time to move on. He notes that refreshingly, suppliers are able to break the shackles of formality and grey suits, if they are able to connect with senior management. In his experience, firms are eager to unearth suppliers with real creativity, fresh approaches and commercial nous – and if they can establish that, they have a good chance of building a connection that will hold through all the usual trials and challenges of a supplier relationship.

Dominic de Mariveles endorses a long-term approach to how we spend. “While today it may seem right to cull agency costs and slash lavish spending on client entertainment and sponsorship, perhaps things have swung too far towards short-term savings and this may be a good time to negotiate keen long-term arrangements”. Like a smart trader, shouldn’t we be investing when stocks are cheap?

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