Client/Agency Relationships: Carrot or Stick?
Throughout the year, nonprofits and those who help them come together at professional conferences and conventions to share knowledge about marketing and fundraising. The networking is without bounds, and the comradery is exactly what you would expect when people come together with a common purpose.
But let’s be honest, the everyday between nonprofits and their agencies is not perfect. Along with the amazing outcomes and goal achievements, there are also challenges, mistakes, misunderstandings, etc. And while solid relationships can push through some of the tough days, let’s face it—not all relationships are healthy.
I’ve been on both sides of this story. I’ve been a part of leadership at a nonprofit with a program that had enormous goals and pressure. And I’ve been in leadership on the agency side where you balance the goals of the client with the goals of the agency. Both sides are exhilarating, and both sides have their challenges.
One thing is clear though: a strong client/agency relationship is critical. However, in the end, sometimes the relationship is just not as strong as it needs to be. And for those of us who consult with both the client and agency, the question is always “how do you fix things if they are bad?” Furthermore, since one party (client) is typically paying the other party (agency), it sometimes boils down to “what is the best way to get the most out of my agency relationship?”
As you can imagine, I have plenty of stories to tell about client/agency relationships from working over 27 years in the industry, but I actually got this week’s blog topic from a recent LinkedIn discussion. It was titled “Getting the Best Out of an Agency—Carrot or Stick?” and the author was asking our closed group what our opinion on the topic was. As I’m sure you won’t be surprised, the answers (from what appears to be both clients and agency folks) were absolutely focused on… anti-stick.
Before I provide some thoughts on how to answer the question, I’ve put some of the direct quotes from the discussion on LinkedIn.
“Remember: it's people running the business. And trying to get the best out of people by using a stick is a dead-end street.”
“All success comes from understanding, collaboration, insight, engagement, effort and creativity. Generally, none of these things can be beaten out of anyone. And in truth, you can't get this from people merely through rewards either. Carrot and/or stick? I think openness, honesty, relationship and trust work best. We all know companies have pressure for results. No doubt, any agency worth keeping is focused on the same goals and objectives as if they were part of the client's organization. Want the best out of your agency? Treat them as you would your valued team members.”
“Sometimes it depends on your perspective and interpretation. Carrot or stick can be interpreted as a leadership or management style—supportive and rewarding versus Theory X mentality. In agency activities, I have worked with a hard-nosed, unforgiving mentality and an environment that promoted calculated risk, innovation and new wave ideas. Prefer the latter.”
“I find it sad that this is a question that is even being asked. The relationship between agency and client is like a marriage, a life partnership. Both bring different experiences, backgrounds, strengths and weaknesses to the relationship, but both should be working alongside each other to achieve a set of common objectives. Mutual respect, an equal balance of responsibility and honest communication are what this relationship should be based on."
If for some reason you have found yourself in one of these “unhealthy” or “stick-related” relationships, you must try to change. Why? You must create change because these types of relationships have no future.
Below are some thoughts about what makes a good client/agency relationship. These are not in any order or priority, but more of a check list to help determine where the real problems are:
Communication: This should be the most obvious item on the list, but you’d be surprised how problems in communication can ruin a relationship. There are several areas to consider:
- Being aligned: Communication is about getting aligned. Whether you are getting aligned on the past, the present or the future—that’s the outcome that is necessary. To get aligned, communication has to be clear, collaborative and frequent enough to ensure constant alignment. This sounds simple, but can often be a serious problem if not done right from the beginning. If there is no alignment, there is no sense of being “one force/team” to accomplish the goals.
- Feedback loops: Both sides of the relationship must know that feedback is welcome, and there is time to give it and receive it. But feedback can be done wrong too. For example, if feedback is not provided in a timely manner, problems grow and can sometimes reach a point where they can’t be fixed. Another example is if feedback is not honest or if feedback is isolated versus across the whole team. Remember, the key (as stated above) is for the client and the agency to truly become a single team. If the team is not honest with each other or becomes dissected with only certain parties being honest with each other, this will continue to make it difficult for the team to succeed.
- Face, voice and email: With today’s speed of business and budget constraints, it is not possible to have all meetings in person. While face-to-face is the best for team collaboration and bonding, it’s just not realistic all the time. Create a communication process that includes all options. Every channel has its advantages and disadvantages. However, if the relationship is in the late stages of having a problem, go for a face-to-face as quickly as possible and then try to deal with everything else on the list.
- Personality: It has to be said. Sometimes the problem is a personality. These are the hardest issues to fix. Attempt to have a respectful conversation about how that personality is creating a breakdown in the team. But come prepared to this conversation with solutions not just complaints.
Expectations and goals: As is seen in many of the comments from others, if the goals and expectations of the relationship are not clear, this is a large problem. A team performs best when it is clear what success looks like. This is where good communication across the team comes into play. Why? Consider these situations:
- The team needs to not only be aligned on the goals, but each member of the team needs to believe the goals are achievable. And, perhaps more importantly, if the goals are not achievable or unrealistic from the start, the team must be able to communicate openly and honestly about the situation from the start. There may be multiple ways to handle the challenges or concerns, but not talking about them is the first problem. A solid team that is aligned around goals can pull together and get aligned if the goals become challenged.
- As stated in the above bullet, if goals start to slip, it is too late to have the team indicate the goals were never achievable. But, as with many things in marketing—something happens within the budget, a marketplace shift occurs or an error happens—any host of things can impact the ability to meet the goals. This will test the team, but a solid foundation of understanding and communication will help brainstorming, finding solutions and making shared ownership easier.
Collaboration: Overall, the sooner everyone understands that it can only be done together, the better the team will be. Collaboration is critical to success. An agency should never assume they are in control of the work being done, and a client should never assume they are in control of the work being done—it is a partnership between the client and the agency. However, there are things that must be understood:
- Both sides of the relationship have to ensure things stay fresh. If one side of the team is pushing harder, there will be feelings that the other side is not pushing hard enough. If one side is focused on new ideas without the other, there will be a lack of innovation perceived at some point. The goal is to stay on the right path to achieve the goals, but ensure the team has time to think through new strategies, new ways of doing business and new ways of looking at the goals.
- Innovation is not something that belongs to one side of the team. However, innovation has to be balanced with realism. Nothing can be more frustrating than having blue-sky ideas presented if there is no chance in hell it can happen. Make sure the full team is based in reality, whether that is budget related, leadership related, or another major decision-making area.
I’d love to say this stuff isn’t rocket-science, but apparently it is. If you’re in a great relationship with your “other half” (agency or client), be proud, but stay on top of it. If you’re in a tough relationship, perhaps the above will help.
Vice President, Strategy & Development
Eleventy Marketing Group
Angie is ridiculously passionate about EVERYTHING she’s involved in — including the future and success of our nonprofit industry.
Angie is a senior exec with 25 years of experience in direct and relationship marketing. She is a C-suite consultant with experience over the years at both nonprofits and agencies. She currently leads strategy and development for marketing intelligence agency Eleventy Marketing Group. Previously she has worked at the innovative startup DonorVoice and as general manager of Merkle’s Nonprofit Group, as well as serving as that firm’s CRM officer charged with driving change within the industry. She also spent more 14 years leading the marketing, fundraising and CRM areas for two nationwide charities, The Arthritis Foundation and the American Cancer Society. Angie is a thought leader in the industry and is frequent speaker at events, and author of articles and whitepapers on the nonprofit industry. She also has received recognition for innovation and influence over the years.