Why Clients & Agencies Should Be Knowledge Partners More Than Just Business Partners

Brands and agencies will have to get into each others shoes to understand the challenges and to excel in the work they do, writes Srinivas in his last piece as Guest Editor for February


Editor’s Note: Srinivas Kulkarni, Head, Learning & Development and Analytics wing, Social Kinnect is the Guest Editor at LI for Feb. This is his last article on Learning & Development, you can find his previous articles here.

It’s almost the end of the month, that time when most of us agency folks are pushing towards achieving our targets. Yes, seems like a regular grind, you may think.

But, no, it could very well be the case considering most businesses (clients) have their own goals to meet!

Interesting isn’t it? From the time we started working on Digital Media, treating it to be an awareness platform to when ROI became a buzzword in the industry. Everyone has moved towards KPIs, Targets and projections, even when a lot of us as marketers want Digital to be more than just numbers.

Working together towards a common goal

There are strange dynamics in relationships between clients and Srinivas Kulkarniagencies and for the most part we all know what the truth is. Yes, there’s the client side story and there’s the agency side. While one might feel the other is out to stifle them we’ve always seen both of them come together in celebration at the end, when they see the reward. Whether it is a new milestone achieved, a great benchmark set, an award, a spectacular campaign or driving fantastic business results, we will be partners no matter what!

Like every relationship, there are key things that drive this one too. More often than none, it’s the belief to come together for a common goal and work as partners rather than have a ‘Client: Vendor’ relationship. So if that’s the case, why is it when it comes to ‘Knowledge’ it always is a challenge.

Brands hire agencies to be their business partners, but also expect them to be their knowledge partners. Yes, the relationship is based on retainers, a fixed duration. But that is an opportunity for agencies to prove their mettle in all aspects, not just servicing on the brand. Not just coming up with great, creative campaigns but also to educate and bring the client onboard expectations to work together towards a common goal.

If you ask me, the challenge is two-fold. Clients expect agencies to do more than what they’re being paid for, to go beyond your traditional ‘SOW’ mentality, not just in terms of deliverables but non tangible aspects such as providing insights, value add and knowledge about the industry to take them along, rather than treat them as ‘Marketers’ who don’t know anything about digital. At least not as much as the folks in agencies, you may think. Think again! Times they are a changin’…

Brands and clients are taking as much interest in digital and growing their learning curve as they had in traditional forms of marketing. Many companies are insourcing execution for digital and of course, exclusively have SPOCs for Digital alone! So, truly think again before you make that assumption.

The Agency side of the story

The agency side of the story is, that they don’t want to give too much information, tips, and tricks of the trade or empower the clients so much that they don’t need you anymore! Yes, true story guys, I can vouch for that and it has happened, sadly to the loss of the brand owners. But the crux of it is that, agencies are hired to not just outsource the work in the specialized field, but also to be part of driving the business results as much as clients would want to. Believe me most agencies now understand the importance of ROI and the essential nature of driving them as much as the business owners.

So what is the reason that there’s always that friction, when it comes to ‘Knowledge.’ Of course, Knowledge is Power, but most certainly, there are flipsides to it. What many agencies fail to understand is that the more you give, the more you get.

“An educated client is a high paying and long term client!”

Some find this difficult to accept, from a simple perspective that it would entail agencies to push their boundaries, and make sure they push the envelope to attain higher quality at a cost that they probably won’t get unless they upsell.

It’s not a generalist statement. For sure, if you educate your client, go the extra mile and drive that belief of them working together, you walk that extra mile with them!

It’s not just to drive business goals, but also to make them a part of the education process, they’d respond better and in turn would result in:

  1. Educating the limitations of whatever a digital medium, platform, idea and activity.
  2. Convincing them to go beyond their limitations, end up upselling various other opportunities and innovations which would make for a successful campaign.

The Client side of the story

Rule No. 1: Agencies exist because they specialize in something that the brand in itself may not have either the resources or the vision to insource. That doesn’t mean, they’re always going to have a one-up and try to fleece you at every opportunity they get. There have been endless debates; in fact one of the most popular campaigns last year #GetNakedAtCannes, gave us an unadulterated picture of what a Client-Agency relationship should be and what it would mean to their creative success.

Most clients who have never been on the agency side, may not always understand the dynamics of the work structure and realize there will be a lot of challenges that agencies work with in order to deliver something beyond what they are expected to.

At times, even what they are supposed to. But if we treat agencies as vendors and not set reasonable expectations, especially if they aren’t knowledgeable or don’t seek out to get a broader picture, as clients they’d always face challenge in trusting agencies when it comes to an unknown territory.

It is even more detrimental to have an attitude where you blindly trust the agency because you don’t have the bandwidth and rely on them only to ‘get the work’ done. Yes eventually you shall evaluate your agencies by the work they do at the end of the day, but it’s equally important to understand where they’re coming from and the challenges faced.

Bridging the gap between the two

Interestingly if you read between the lines, I’ve actually flipped the stories. What I want to say is not what the challenges are for each side, but what they should hope to achieve. Eventually it’s about putting yourselves in the other’s shoe! The first step starts by understanding the other person’s mindset, requirements and help them to get there.

A fundamental realization is that, more synchronized you are with thoughts, the better your relationships will get. And that, in my honest opinion comes with two things,

  1. The trust you build.
  2. The performance you deliver.

Having said that, the first part and the second, though integral to each other, always depend on how well both of you work as knowledge partners! Whether it is educating them and setting expectations in advance, even if it means showing all your cards, it sets a great example in clients minds that this person is willing to go that extra mile without asking for something in return.

A few examples that I’ve personally seen work and having clients appreciate the same as well are:

  1. Agencies sharing relevant insights, data on a monthly basis or even as and when they come, proactively, including the ones that you may have exclusive access to.
  2. Agencies conducting workshops, training sessions to help stakeholders within the client side, this is beyond educating them about insights during your monthly meetings.
  3. Clients being open towards suggestions and value add basis the expertise.
  4. Clients inviting agencies to any sessions/workshops that they’ve exclusively received from partners, networks etc.

All these are pointers, but the core requirement today is being able to build that bond, that trust between both the sides to drive success, which will obviously mean a lot to both sides. And starting to be Knowledge Partners is where it all begins! What say?

P.S While this was my last guest article for Lighthouse Insights, it truly is the beginning of something great in terms of my own learning. Personally, one of the reasons I did this is based on my conversation with Prasant and how he wanted me to be a part of this thought to drive insights from an insider’s perspective. It shows great openness to accept, even though he has a bird eye’s view, involving folks like us from the industry to be part of his widely accepted platform through our contribution. Means a lot to me and I wish him luck to take this initiative further.

I hope this series has helped you as much as it has been a learning for me. For those who gave me feedback personally, many thanks to all of you and for the rest, I have two, no four words for you.

“Keep Shipping, Keep Learning!”