Relationships can hinge on how 'partnership' is defined

At our annual PRWeek Awards dinner on March 8, the occupants of a number of tables from one agency left about 10 minutes before the presentation ended.

At our annual PRWeek Awards dinner on March 8, the occupants of a number of tables from one agency left about 10 minutes before the presentation ended.

A senior corporate person from a major consumer brand who I spoke to later looked up the name of the firm in the guest directory upon witnessing its unsubtle exit. "I would never hire that firm," that person told me.

It's pretty interesting, the things that can kill a relationship before it ever gets started. The foundations of great client relationships are built, in the beginning, on many small things, in addition to the big ideas that get the firm in the door.

Agencies talk a lot about how they want their clients to treat them like "partners." Most of them mean that they want to be included in the strategic decision-making process, fully used for their expertise, and have their staff at all levels treated with respect. They want access to the top-tier management outside of communications, and to be on the appropriate scale with all other marketing agencies when it comes to the development of programs and allocation of budget.

But what do clients mean by "partnership"? For one thing, the term is simply not thrown around as much by leaders on the corporate side as it is by agency pros. When a client tells us that a firm is "a true partner," we pay attention. I believe that clients who use that designation are looking far beyond specific services and strategies, to the values and culture of the firm.

The bulk of the responsibility for creating a partnership feeling in the client lies with the individuals who work on the account. I was recently talking about someone I used to work with a long time ago, and was asked if I'd be happy to work with that person again. "Yes," I said. When asked why, I explained, without missing a beat, "Because I trust him." That is the kind of intuitive link that is forged through long-term personal interaction, for which there is no substitute.

It's not rocket science; it's harder, because there's no exact formula for success. But conventional wisdom focuses on the obvious aspects of relationships, when the true intangibles frequently make the difference.

I have had many relationships with outside consultants of one type or another. While I don't think the intangibles outweigh truly outstanding work, I think that poor attention to them is a gateway to larger dissatisfactions that ultimately can doom it.

Maybe the most important aspect of becoming a partner is to be smart. Smart about how you communicate. Smart about the assumptions you make about your client's business and priorities. Smart enough to understand that the client has internal pressures and politics that are out of your or their control, and must be managed. And smart enough to know that industry events are full of your clients and prospects, and they truly care about what you do, and how you do it.

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