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Cultural Fit: Clients & Ad Agencies

Cozy or Chilly?

February inspires us to take stock of our relationships. The quality of our relationships directly impacts how we think, feel and function. We celebrate those that are a source of joy. When we align with partners on the important things, like what success satisfies us or how best to spend our resources, we tend to compromise on the little things, like what appetizer to order or how warm to set the thermostat. When we are at odds with others regarding what we care deeply about not much goes well; we get salty, battle or avoid conflict. Stale relationships drag us down and undermine our potential. Toxic relationships zap creative energy and threaten our best sense of self.

Relationship success in the advertising industry merits loving attention. Companies continually seek, hire, fire and rehire ad agencies. This cycle would lead us to believe sustained and successful client-agency partnerships are difficult to achieve. Some client-agency relationships click better than others and stand the test of time. They are satisfying like hot cocoa on a winter day. Others are chilly, and short-lived. We wonder about the difference.

“Birds of a Feather”

When different organizations are “a good cultural fit” they align on important things. They appreciate and share the core values that influence each other’s actions, attitudes and results. This orientation to client-agency life not only improves the outcome in the courtship process, but more importantly informs the way client-agency teams can work better together.

Companies spend significant dollars with full service and specialty ad agencies; they need their resource partners to care deeply enough about their business to produce the quality of work that engages targeted consumers and catapults their brands above the noise. CMOs are hired to perform with high value from the outset. Time wasted in false starts with culturally misaligned agencies translates into poor performance. Cultural alignment can minimizes heartache, and reduce conflicts.

Common sense examples: a process-oriented, data-driven company (think financial services brand or engineering-oriented manufacturer) wastes time and money working with an agency that values ideation and experimentation over crisp process with data to reduce risk in marketing decision-making. Retail companies value speed, aggression, production and efficiency. Service-oriented companies seek agility, ideation and innovation to engage customers for competitive advantage. Non-profits that advertise value accountability as much as creativity. Premium brands value aesthetics, design, thoughtfulness and quality. Everyone values results.

Agencies that pursue or accept assignments from clients with cultures too unlike their own will experience frustration and employee turnover. Agencies that focus resources more discriminatingly on companies that are culturally aligned will experience growth and prosperity; they expand their business from a position of success and strength.

“I’ve got you under my skin…”

Recognizing that organizational culture is deeply embedded in the structure of an organization is a first step to creating relationships that work. Selecting resource partners on that basis is the next. The performance effectiveness of any organization can be attributed to the strength and integrity of its culture. It characterizes, connects and compels the actions of the entire environment and its members. It makes things work well or not.

Whereas strategies are often intentional, externally oriented and designed to initiate activity, it is organizational culture that bridges the gap between a stated plan and the actual actions that take place. The core value system that underpins culture is much more likely to shape and influence norms and patterns of behavior, people’s real time actions and decisions. Informal and formal reward systems work to reinforce behavior regardless of a company mandate, which is why cultural change is so difficult to achieve.

Having high degrees of organizational cultural awareness is a critical competency for marketing leaders responsible for directing people internally. The same sensibility applies to orchestrating the integration of resources externally. Imagine knowing how best to share information, analyze options, make decisions, resolve conflict, and celebrate success; how to both respect and challenge a point of view from another; how to solicit and give feedback across disparate groups of people to result in something everyone agrees is better.

The Proposal

Like love, cultural fit is clearly important yet difficult to find. Some companies source ad agencies and other suppliers based on narrow selection criteria, “stats and facts”. They seek proof points of agency capability and analyze case histories to reduce their risk in picking the wrong agency. Procurement processes prioritize financial, legal and risk management criteria over other considerations. This can result in costly trial and error experiences with agencies. Client rosters become crowded with too many disenfranchised agencies producing mediocre results.

Company marketing leaders that enjoy vibrant, dynamic agency relationships vet agency partners with their heart as much as their head. They broaden selection criteria, ask different questions. They use experiences and interactions to preview how agency people respond to them and think about their business issues. They compare and contrast experiences with agency people to find the group that most likely will care, and then connect with them to work in a productive relationship. They look and listen to understand what is important to their partners and then make selection decisions based on their comfort level.

“To Thine Own Self Be True”

Some agencies obscure the industry view for clients seeking resources. Agencies can seem chameleon-like when talking with prospective clients, changing stories like socks. Others find it difficult to talk about a raison d’être apart from their current client portfolio; and frequent personnel changes mean the agency song will soon sound like a new tune. Thus, ad agencies get unfairly pegged by clients as interchangeable suppliers vs indispensible brand-building partners.

As expert marketers ad agencies can appreciate that their business development practices would benefit keen branding, better clarity, relevance and substance. Organizational culture is an overlooked source for inspiration, agency brand differentiation, strategy and communication. A sharper focus on core values can impart higher level meaning and purpose to an agency’s work; Leaders that leverage culture to develop their agency brand story, online, offline, in person will create agency differentiation; those that walk the talk, demonstrating the agency values as words to live by will earn greater respect; this inside out approach generates attention, consideration and conversation with prospective clients. A dialogue about core values accelerates the necessary trust that precedes any commitment decision.

Keeping it Real

Authenticity comes from consistent, tight correlation between espoused values and the actual experiences of employees, clients and colleagues. Fans create positive buzz, provide heartfelt references. These clients are less likely to change agency partners. They are more likely to trust their agency’s judgment to examine paradigm-shifting ideas and produce impactful work for mutual advantage. The higher quality client-agency relationship builds reputation, credibility and deepens over time. The cultural alignment of two organizations allows for individuals to come, participate and go, and the overarching relationship prevails.

The Business Case

A final note: Apple’s market cap hit a whopping $740B. Whether you agreed with his management style or not, Steve Jobs offered this insight:

The only thing that works is management by values. Find people who are competent and really bright, but more importantly, people who care exactly about the same things you care about.”

– Steve Jobs, Co‐founder, Apple

I am not sure “exact” is a reasonable goal but stronger cultural alignment between client companies and their agencies that care about the same things will certainly keep the chill out of winter.

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