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June, 2024

Behaviour change: marketer-agency power imbalance requires attitude adjuster; WeGrow’s Wendy Gower’s pilot with Stockland makes good better

What you need to know: 

  • Former adland exec turned comms industry consultant, Wendy Gower, is taking marketers to task on how to properly brief their agencies. She thinks breakdowns in open and honest communication are diminishing client/agency relationships to transactional status – harming the quality of work.
  • After piloting a new workshop she’s designed to help clients tackle the issue, Gower said that by bringing openness and vulnerability to their agency partnerships, marketers can ultimately drive better commercial outcomes.
  • Treating agency partners “like humans”, while obvious, sometimes gets lost in the pace at which marketers are moving. Per Gower, the best partnerships arise when clients are “open and vulnerable” enough share their challenges, personal objectives and time.
  • Stockland’s marketing team are the first to graduate from the program – and they’re reaping the rewards. They’re building “richer” relationships, and their agency partners are already seeing a difference.
  • GM of brand and channel, Natalie Warren-Smith, said the company prides itself on “treating our agency partners as an extension of our team”, and saw the opportunity to review and reflect on how they can be “even better”.

The friction between marketers and their agencies is a well-documented phenomenon in this industry – and in an increasingly fast-paced world, relationships are more strained than ever.

The State of Creativity published ahead of Cannes Lions highlighted the “breakdown in communication” between brands and creative partners as the biggest challenge for the creative industry as it regains momentum. The global survey of 3,000 marketers and creatives found that opportunities for growth were being missed as tensions ran high – and it’s being felt more acutely on the agency side.

Industry initiatives like BetterBriefs have set out to correct the course by addressing the briefing process itself (though they seem to have gone quiet since their initial push), but according to Wendy Gower, there’s a need to at the issue look more holistically as well.

The former Hearts & Science MD turned owner of her own comms industry consultancy, WeGrow, reckons if clients want the fruits of a healthy agency partnership, they’ll have to shift their focus away from outcomes and take a closer look at their own inputs.

“There’s a real difference in the agency relationships where people will walk through fire for their client, and [those] where it’s just transactional,” she told Mi3. It’s got nothing to do with the function of the brand itself or the kind of work that’s being done – it’s down to the human beings behind it.

The solution? Gower reckons marketers could do with some training on how to get their agency partnerships well oiled – a look into the mind of agency folk and how to draw out their best work. Hence developing a program – with Stockland the first pilot client.

Fresh out of the first half day workshop, property development group’s head of brand and channel, Natalie Warren-Smith, would agree.

“This whole notion of partnership is what we’re really invested in at Stockland, and it’s why we undertook the program,” she says. “We absolutely pride ourselves on treating our agency partners as an extension of our team.”

Partner problems

Gower is well accustomed to how dysfunctional partnerships play out on the client side thanks to a solid couple of decades on the front line at Initiative, Mediacom, UM and Hearts & Science. But she’s done her due diligence too – the workshop is built off the insights she’s collected from agency leaders across the industry.

“Partnership came up a lot in the feedback,” she said, pulling out the quote of one anonymous agency chief, who suggests that for all the clients that say they “want to be true partners”, their “actions and behaviours” just aren’t lining up.

Gower thinks that’s largely thanks to “the current state of the market”. “You’ve got so much pace, people want to get pace all the time… [so they] aren’t necessarily prioritising partnerships.”

“There’s ‘juniorisation’ everywhere, and sometimes there isn’t the due diligence and the quality controlling of the briefs that sometimes kind of get flung over the fence,”  she added.

Then there’s the 10-page long “muddled” briefs that just “confuse” the agency. Or briefs that omit critical information, which is inevitably shared as an afterthought once the agency has “spent weeks putting something together”.

Feedback, she said, is another pain point – and not just when the marketing team is dishing it out. “It’s terrifying for agency MDs and CEOs to give clients feedback that’s slightly difficult … it’s terrifying because it is a lopsided relationship.”

Solving that imbalance, per Gower, means creating actual partnerships: Clients must be “open and vulnerable” enough share their challenges, personal objectives and time with their agencies.

“When you’re hiring an agency, your kind of hiring a bunch of creative souls that just want to be an extension of your vision or your mission. And if you allow them in, and you inspire them and empower them, that’s something really powerful.”

It’s not just about being “altruistic” or making agency talent feel good about themselves – there’s commercial upside to be had.

“Clients spend a huge amount of money on their agency retainers, [and] they also spend a huge amount of money on developing work and [investing] in paid media… but there isn’t a lot of self-reflection on the way in which you get to those outcomes.”

Collective gain

For the team at Stockland, Warren-Smith says the notion of partnership is “about treating people with respect and care and valuing what they bring to the team”.

“You want to make the right work that’s effective, and to do that, you need the right partners that deeply understand your marketing and customer problems that can help you deliver the right outcomes – and you can’t do that if you treat it as a transactional relationship,” said Warren-Smith.

When Gower came knocking, Stockland jumped to review its own approach. “Why wouldn’t we make ourselves better?” added Warren-Smith. “The richer the relationship, the richer the result, quite frankly.”

The motivation wasn’t purely commercial – “it was actually about what it meant for our partners and together, what we could do better as a collective, not about individual gain”.

What came out of it was the reminder that effective partnership comes down, quite simply, to “treating each other like humans”.

“Saying thank you goes a very long way, and it’s super important to not get so comfortable that you forget to say thank you for the effort that gets put in,” said Warren-Smith.

She likens it to a family dynamic, where it’s easy to assume “that they know you’re grateful” – and it’s an easy thing to take for granted. If sibling-style spats are to be avoided, marketers are best off getting their teams in the habit of saying thank you regularly. That, per Warren-Smith, is “critically important to maintaining the harmony of the relationship”.

“I can’t state enough the importance of true partnership and team alignment in solving the same customer and marketing challenges.” Get that right, and “you can dissolve any other challenges that might come up”.

Stockland’s efforts have already been acknowledged in market, and that feedback has come back to Gower. “I met the CEO of one of their agency partners, and they were really curious to know about the program, because they’d seen a change in some of the behaviours,” she said.

But Gower underlined that “this is a team that’s going from good to great, not from poor to good. I think it takes a progressive marketer to be open-minded [enough] to actually have that self-reflection”.