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Blind date: client-agency relationships

Thanks to today’s business pressures, ‘chemistry’ – once seen as the bedrock of client-agency relationships – has been sidelined in favour of increasingly complex RFIs that form a wedge between the two parties

Blind date client agency relationships

I am old enough to remember the iconic game show on British TV during the 1980s called Blind Date – one boy picked from three girls and vice versa before both couples jetted off to get to know their new 'partner' better. In fact, a friend of mine was a contestant (and that isn't a veiled reference to me; I did have a friend enter and she actually got picked). 

The reason I bring up blind dates as a subject is that there are many parallels now with how pharma companies approach selecting their agency partners. 

Years ago, a brand team would call up a small number of agencies it knew from previous experience or because it respected their work. There would be a credentials meeting to meet the team, and to see and talk about the work it had done in more detail, with a view to getting a sense of whether they could work together. A briefing meeting would then follow, after which the agencies were given time to digest and pull apart the brief, quiz the client, discuss, debate and show early thoughts, ending with a presentation of their concluding points of view, demonstrated through creative concepts. 

Not any more. The world has changed and – although largely I am grateful that the world has moved on – as with most things in life there are upsides and downsides to change. 

Most of us would readily admit we now couldn't live without our iPhones, iPads, email, laptops, twitter feeds or the ability to Google anything to find out everything. But as our lives have changed there are some aspects that remain steadfast – who we love, who we respect and who we value. What I mean is: who we want to have a relationship with. 

Impact of new business approaches
So, given it is widely accepted that it's the strength of the relationship with your agency that drives great results, let us come back to today and see how those relationship choices are being made in the healthcare industry.

With the advent of a multi-market approach to brand development and communications, client brand teams have expanded in size, in remit and in the diversity of their background. To manage this expanding situation, procurement has become more active and more involved in the structure of the pitch process. 

For the first time, the EACA Health Care Association conducted a survey of its members to see what impact the current environment of new business approaches is having on agencies. No agency names, no client names, but a series of questions to capture what has become the norm in the process of finding an agency partner. 

By far, the questions that elicited the most striking responses were around the number and complexity of stages that included little, if any, human interaction. 

Requests for information (RFIs) were once simply to confirm you weren't working out of your mum's garage and that your employees didn't all have the same surname, or that they weren't one part real to three parts 'smoke and mirrors'. Once the dry but critical information regarding legal and financial robustness had been confirmed, the dating began in earnest. 

The courtship included the credentials meeting to see what the agency had done for others; the chemistry session; the way a client took the agency through the brief and the way the agency reacted and questioned that brief; and perhaps the tissue session where the agency showed its early creative thoughts and ideas and how and why those ideas came about. 

All these human interactions gave an understanding of the people involved, how they operate and what makes them tick. It gave an insight into whether a client wanted to get into the proverbial commercial bed with the agency or simply 'air kiss' past it on the way out – a clear indication that the agency wouldn't be invited back to the final party.  

Today, as a consequence of perhaps saving time and money, the RFI stage is protracted, overly complicated and increasingly repetitive. Each one is slightly different in format or angle to the previous and yet often from the same organisation. Agencies are given additional time to complete the task, but it is difficult to see what additional knowledge is gained? 

As the RFI becomes deeper, longer, fatter, it simply becomes a bigger wedge preventing the agency and the client from getting together and getting to know each other. 

This means more time is spent building, reviewing and discussing the content of Excel spread sheets than actually talking to the people they may be spending a lot of time and a lot of money with over the next few years. 

For a blind date you hear all about the person beforehand. I doubt you build a spread sheet of questions, but you may send a few flirtatious texts or emails, or check him/her out on Facebook. But the answer will be something he/she has had time to craft, to be witty, to be what he/she thinks you want to hear, perhaps even penned by a modern day Cyrano de Bergerac. It will be an answer across space, not face-to-face. 

But when the day of the blind date arrives you can see him/her in person, you can see the body language, the way he/she thinks, the way he/she answers you and what questions he/she asks. You can see through his/her eyes, not his/her charming email replies. And you will know. You will know deep down, if he/she could be, the one. 

You want to meet your future partner and only you and your eyes and your mind can spot it. 

Getting to know each other comes last
So while getting to know someone is crucial to a lasting relationship in the real world, the HCA survey showed that in most cases the first opportunity to see and talk to the client was at the last stage, the pitch presentation. If this is not a blind date, I don't know what is and as a consequence, I worry about the foundations of the agency–client relationship. 

To those of you reading this who have spent the past few years in relationship bliss with a loved one you first met on a blind date, congratulations! But I am happy to wager that there are more of us in the world whose blind date experience was a short-lived (and a little embarrassing) disaster.

As the RFI becomes deeper, longer, fatter, it simply becomes a bigger wedge preventing the agency and client from getting together

Our happiness comes from having been able to get to know and see 'that' person. And you know, just know, he/she the one. 

What happened to my friend I hear you ask? She had a short trip somewhere vaguely exotic with a guy she didn't fancy, although he did seem to like her. The biggest disappointment was that she had met someone between applying for the show and it going on air, so although she went through the motions, her heart was already somewhere else.

Poor guy, however that's blind dates for you. I am sure if he had time to talk and be with her, time to get to know her, he would have seen and known he was not for her, she was not right for him, and it would have been a lot better for everyone.

Article by
Louise Purvis

Chief Operating Officer, Europe McCann Health

4th March 2013

From: Marketing

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