How to Make Agency Partnerships Work

an interview with
Pepper Evans Vice President of Branding & Member Engagement Marketing, American Express

As chief Renegade for the better part of two decades, I’ve witnessed first hand the innumerable variations client-agency relationships can take. Some have been multi-dimensional like our phenomenal 15-year partnership with Panasonic.  Others have been more focused like the BankCab guerrilla marketing program which drove customers to HSBC for 13 years. Some clients have given us a clean slate to solve a particular marketing challenge while others have been more prescriptive, defining the channels they want us to cover.  Some lay out the budget parameters, others ask us what we need to get the job done.  Some really truly treat us like partners, others as interchangeable vendors.

And here’s the crazy part, at Renegade we are incredibly selective about the clients we work with, seeking out the one’s that welcome Renegade thinking and want mutually beneficial partnerships. Yet somehow we’ve never been able to predict which relationships will endure.  Part of the unpredictability is personnel changes — you start with one client team and can end up with a very different one down the road. Part of it is that only a few clients put a premium on their agency relationships such that they actually train their marketing employees on the care and feeding of these relationships.  One exception to that rule is American Express which is why I was so thrilled to interview Pepper Evans, who until recently was Vice President of Branding & Member Engagement Marketing. Pepper actually ran a training program for AmEx marketers helping these folks learn how to be effective clients and as a result get better results from their partners. If the old saying, “Clients get the work they deserve” is true, read on to find out how you can always be on the right side of that formula. (By the way, you can hear Pepper speak at the Incite Group Marketing Summit October 27-28.)

Drew: Some clients approach agencies as vendors, others as long-term partners.  Can you speak to some of the advantages of the partnership approach? Is there measurable value here? 

Pepper: I firmly believe you should treat your agency like a partner in order to get the best results. That mindset leads to a different way of working together. First, you openly share your business objectives and metrics so that the agency can help you solve your issues. After all, you’ve hired them to provide a different point of view. Second, a partnership mindset assumes trust from the outset. You establish trust as a team norm, meaning they know you as the client have the agency’s back and will defend them and the work internally. In turn, the agency tends to give 110% to the project. Third, by being partners, there is an assumed give and take in the relationship, a mutual respect for each other’s expertise that is critical to success. What I’ve seen is that all of this leads to a commitment to doing great work together.

Drew: What are some of the things you think clients can do make their agency relationships more productive? 

Pepper: Clients can make their agency relationships more productive by doing three things:

1—Understand the client’s role in the creative process. It is to provide strategic direction and feedback in the form of comments against the brief. It is not to play creative director.

2—Be appreciative of the creative process. When giving feedback, remember that a human being is behind the work. Don’t be a bully. Say thank you early and often!

3—Recognize the agency is a business too. Both sides have to be financially successful.

Drew: A lot of clients are moving to project-based relationships versus AORs. Are there any downsides to this approach? 

Pepper: Project-based engagements mean that team turns over more frequently, leading to new agency staff on your business. You lose that deep institutional knowledge. On the plus side, it can drive innovation by cross-pollinating ideas across brands more frequently.

Drew: Over the years, it’s been my experience that clients with agency experience either make the best or the worst of clients. Do you see it as an advantage that you had worked on the other side of the table? How did that make you a “better” client?

Pepper: I think former waitresses fall into the same camp: some of us, like me, always tip well while others have such high expectation about service, that nothing can live up! In general, I do think it’s an advantage because it makes you more empathetic to who is sitting across the table from you. Anyone who has had a late night scrambling for a client deliverable is well aware of the impact of each client request and how that trickles down the chain within an agency. Without that inside knowledge, it would be easier to treat the agency as a faceless group of people just spitting out the work. And that’s where the vendor mentality can sneak in.

Drew: Working with an agency is an art form that many have yet to perfect.  Is this a teachable skill? Is this something that a senior marketer can and should teach to more junior employees who are new to working with agencies?  (if you did this at AmEx, please elaborate)

Pepper: This is a skill set you can learn but I also think the partnership mindset has to be emphasized from the top down. In my last role at Amex, I held an agency day for all the marketers in Plenti who worked with our various agencies. We taught them how to write a brief, give creative feedback, and, importantly, work with the agency as a partner. Many of the junior people had never been exposed to these concepts in a formal setting before. I see this as almost a life skill. Plus, a good agency can make you look smart and help your career progression, which is another motivation.

Drew: What are some of the biggest and preventable mistakes that agencies make that prevent enduring them from having relationships?  

Pepper: I’ve seen agencies lose relationships in two main ways. The first is by getting greedy and pushing work that is unnecessary, which fractures trust. The second is failing to treat the client with equal respect and assuming an “agency knows best” approach.

Drew: You won a leadership award at Amex for your relationship building efforts.  Can you elaborate on that? 

Pepper:: I’m very proud of winning the President’s Leadership Award. It was in recognition of my ability to motivate and manage both internal and external teams through challenging situations. I believe my job as a leader is to point out the North Star and then use every carrot (not the stick!) in my garden to encourage people to find the creativity, strength, and imagination within themselves to get there.

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