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Monday, August 25, 2014





--A successful partnership allows you to recognize your own weaknesses, and draw on a partner’s strengths, without being uncomfortable about that vulnerability.  Partners must value trust, they must discover how to keep their ego in check, and they must put a premium on not just brains, but on human decency.”


--“Partnerships make people happy, and happier than they would be if they worked alone.  Partnerships provide someone else with whom to share the challenging lows and the ecstatic highs; another person in the trenches, another person to pop the champagne.”


                        --Michael Eisner, from Working Together: 
                           Why Successful
Business Partnerships Are
                           as Important as Successful Marriages



While speaking with a valued client (and respected friend) this week who informed us his company is seeking an additional, new creative agency to service their brands, we heard once again that familiar need expressed:  “We’re looking for a long-term partner.”  Actually, all of us in business not only hear something like this often, but we say it ourselves as well—especially when it comes to bringing on board a new outside supplier.  Who wants just another “supplier”?  We want a “partner.”


And yet, if you stop to think about it, we’re not talking about a real honest-to-goodness partnership:  what kind of partnership is it when one partner can hire or fire the other?  Or when one partner always has the final word?  No, more accurately, when we say “partner” we’re using a euphemism, which most dictionaries define as an “understatement,” or even a “weasel word.”  It’s a little like our title for this week’s DISPATCHES, “Howdy, Pardner.”  That Texas-style greeting from the old, wild West was merely a friendly way to say hello; it had nothing at all to do with recognizing someone as a valued partner.


Still, there is a significant difference in connotation when a marketer says he is looking for an agency partner, not merely another supplier.  While both parties know full well that it’s the client who can always have the last word and even fire the agency if need be, they also know that they’re both desiring some of those same outcomes mentioned by Michael Eisner:  being able to draw on a partner’s strengths, finding happiness in the teamwork…popping the champagne when success arrives!


As we have been partners in BDNI now for twenty-something years, we know a little something about what it takes to make a successful partnership.  And we can verify that what Mr. Eisner says is true.  But even more than this, we have observed a good number of client-creative agency relationships that fall short of being, if not literal business partnerships, then at least the next best thing—a genuinely collaborative relationship.  And we have just a few practices to suggest, which when followed routinely, can really transform a business arrangement or ordinary business relationship into a collaborative, much-more-partner-like one.



Toward a More Collaborative, Partner-Like Client-Agency Relationship


  1. Always, always, always build the Communications Brief together.  In most client-agency relationships we’ve observed, this is not normal practice.  Rather, the normal practice is for the client to “brief” the agency…as in, “Now (since I know my business better than you do) let me tell you what I want.”  But this kind of attitude and behavior is far from partner-like.  It completely misses the value-added-ness of incorporating the agency’s many client experiences with things like Target Definition, Communication Behavior Objective-Setting, and Insight articulation.  Marketers sometimes misconstrue the real reason for co-writing a Communications Brief with their agency account and creative teams:  the purpose isn't so much to encourage “buy-in,” as it is to leverage the geometric value of the combined client and agency experiences.

  2. Always, always, always share Ideas first—with each other.  Again, though it’s hard to understand why, this is not normal practice.  Rather, the normal practice is for the agency creative team to “present” downstream work (such as video-boards or detailed scripts)…as in “Now (since I appreciate creative work better than you do), let me show you what you ought to buy.”  But, once again, this kind of attitude and behavior is far from partner-like.  It completely misses the value-added-ness of the clients’ many experiences—across many brands and with many creative campaigns that worked, as well as with those that didn’t.  Starting with Ideas not only identifies “routes” or “buckets” that the client is ready to invest further in; it also helps both client and agency see what “buckets” have been overlooked and should also be developed some.

  3. Always, always, always have a shared understanding of how testing of creative concepts will be done--and acted upon.  Ideally, no creative work is undertaken without (a) a crystal-clear explanation by the client about “this is how we determine what goes into the market and what doesn’t”; and (b) suggestions by the agency on what kinds of research methodologies and action standards work best for the various kinds of creative media forms.  The aim is to get closer to a real partnership, which means collaboration on the brief, ideas, and how those ideas will be assessed.

  4. Most important of all, always, always, always bring up tough issues (especially relationship ones) sooner, not later.  In his book, Michael Eisner makes this very clear:  “Even when two people are a perfect fit, there are going to be times when someone needs to speak up, and say something difficult.  Anyone who’s married knows this.  As any married person understands, saying ‘I do’ is just the beginning.”  Sure, it’s hard for most people to speak up, and easier for them to let something ride.  But in a true collaborative, partner-like relationship, speaking up early and often is the right thing to do.


We know how much work it takes to build and sustain a “happy” business partnership.  Our best advice for would-be client-agency “partners” is simply to put these four practices into routine use.  Then, when either you or the agency comes to call on the other, both can say it like they mean it:  “Howdy, Pardner.”


Richard Czerniawski & Mike Maloney



Richard Czerniawski

430 Abbotsford Road

Kenilworth, Illinois 60043

tel 847.256.8820 fax 847.256.8847

reply to Richard: or



Mike Maloney

1506 West 13th

Austin, Texas 78703

tel 512.236.0971 fax 512.236.0972

reply to Mike: or

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