OPINION23 November 2015

Activating relationship strategy


Is the agency landscape shifting with a move back to clients opting for a lead strategic agency? And if so, how can you plan your business strategy to meet this challenge asks Paul Tredwell.  


Now is the time that most organisations are up to their eyes with business planning for 2016. Driving the plan, no doubt, is a piercing analysis of the opportunities provided by the coming year, aided possibly by the seasonal supply of crystal ball gazing, from a variety of sources, as we embark upon another tricky year to call, all things considered.

Hopefully there is a dynamic strategy in place, tight enough to guide strong, clear thinking, flexible enough to encourage inspired, agile doing. As ever, growth on some dimension will be paramount with a focus, therefore, on business development, innovation, acquisition, operational efficiency and talent nurturing as the most influential levers.

Will 2016 be a year, though, in which the management of business relationships firmly establishes itself within the realms of strategy? Indeed, will we talk about relationship strategy per se? The prediction among some commentators that there is taking place what James Murphy, founder and CEO of creative agency Adam & Eve/DDB, has called a “renaissance of the full-service agency” certainly supports an elevation in the importance of relationship management.

This is largely a client-driven shift. Firstly, there is energy for simpler, more streamlined corporate structures and brand portfolios, including, within this model, a consolidation of agency rosters. Result: clients working with fewer agencies.

In addition, there appears to be a renewed interest among clients in the ‘lead agency’ concept, where a small, multi-disciplinary team within one provider in effect curates the thinking and output of a wider group of specialists. This has previously fallen foul of parochialism but this time around there is evidence of more credible, open-minded practitioners within the lead agency who can genuinely embrace the breadth of required skills and available technology. Result: clients working closely with fewer people (within fewer agencies).

The relationship impact of these emerging agency arrangements is less about the number of agencies in the mix. Rather, as Murphy suggests, “It signals a return to more profound relationships between brands and marketers and their key strategic agencies”. Result (surely): the need for relationship strategy.

What defines a more profound relationship? Fundamentally it’s about where we set the bar. Move on from client satisfaction (to my mind, simply the absence of negatives) and think about striving for client commitment where you advocate on each other’s behalf and earn the status of a trusted advisor. The best definition I have heard of a trusted advisor goes like this: ‘You know you are a trusted advisor when a client calls you for advice in an area where you are not an expert’.

There lies a deeper, richer, more rewarding relationship, starting with the establishment of rapport, fuelled by unshakable trust and ending, potentially, with a client for life.

In practice, relationship strategy has never been harder to activate, given, for example, pressure on time, the demand of more for less, the habit of social shortcuts rather than personal contact, the trimming of training budgets and, critically, a consequent short-termism rather than important consideration of future needs and how to meet them.

But, if the CEO of one the UK’s most lauded creative businesses believes that we are seeing a shift to a fuller service agency offer with significant implications for the client relationships which will underpin this arrangement, then perhaps we can’t be too far from a tipping point.

All the more important, therefore, to agree, whether a lead agency arrangement is relevant or not, that relationships have never been more important in business and truly deserve to be regarded as one of the powerful strategic drivers of a successful enterprise.

Paul Tredwell is director of Bigfoot Consulting

1 Comment

9 years ago

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