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Maximising your agency relationship

Once you've selected a healthcare communications agency to work with, how do you ensure you have a long and fruitful relationship? Bruce Ritchie offers some guidance

It's often said of the client/agency relationship that it's a bit like a marriage. With perseverance, communication and compromise you have the makings of a long-term partnership. Without these, the initial spark too often extinguishes.

My own experience involves spending around 10 years as a client managing a variety of agencies before taking a three year (so far) walk on the wild side with a leading UK multidisciplinary agency. This experience has taught a variety of lessons in how to get the most from this delicate partnership. Sticking to the following principles will help your agency relationships flourish quelling any desire for promiscuity.

Principle one: involve your agency more deeply

Pick up any book on leadership and one principle stands out more clearly than any. People like to be led rather than managed. When people are asked to solve a problem rather than complete a series of tasks their levels of ownership, enthusiasm and reward tend to increase significantly. As does the level of their intellectual input into the problem.

In short, not only do you get the task completed for you, you'll probably get a stream of ideas, a wealth of enthusiasm and better outcomes for your project. This is no different when briefing an agency.

Some brand managers can often get frustrated by their agencies' lack of ability to grasp the big picture but this is most often the result of briefing in defined tasks rather than problems to solve.

With no background knowledge of the problem it's very hard to add value. Equally, some agency staff exarcerbate the problem. By never challenging clients to involve them more they remain on the periphery operating in a parent-child rather than peer-to-peer relationship.

Good marketers will take time to develop the depth of their agencies' understanding of the brand and its environment. This investment in time builds confidence which in turn will result in better ideas, useful challenge, less requirement for hand holding and less time correcting what seem like obvious mistakes.

Principle two: praise more
There are no shortage of published views on the appropriateness and manner of giving praise. Some commentators would suggest setting a challenging benchmark above which the recipient must stretch in order to receive praise. The thinking behind this is that praise is not something given out every day and when it is given it is in response to a particularly noteworthy performance and therefore somehow means more. Others would take the view that everyone wants to feel appreciated and that this should be more of an everyday event rather than something saved for special occasions.

Even the most lacklustre performance can contain some element worthy of praise and this delivered praise makes the giving of constructive feedback about how to improve things all the more palatable for the recipient. While a little old fashioned, the old two pieces of praise wrapped either side of a piece of constructive feedback actually works.

The same principle holds true when managing agencies. Make the giving of praise a regular event and use it as currency to buy the right to ask for improvements. You may feel that paying the bills buys you this right anyway but the reality is people respond better to positive encouragement rather than threats of consequences and anyway having to change agencies is a real pain, which you want to avoid if necessary.

Principle three: plan better
It's a real statement of the obvious to suggest that planning better makes everything a little less fraught and gives the client agency relationship a better chance of flourishing. It's also something that's very much easier to say than do. There aren't too many brand managers out there that set out to plan badly or deliberately change things all the time.

Marketing pharmaceuticals is an activity prone to dealing with change and the unexpected. Many of these 'surprises' will impact on activities carried out by your agencies. The more involved an agency is with your business the easier they will find it to shift direction at short notice.

If planning isn't your greatest strength, this is one area that your agency should be good at. If they're not it could be time to review who you're working with. A good agency should at the very least be able to assist you with planning a programme of activities. It's their job to worry about the details leaving you free to keep an eye on the big picture and communicate issues promptly.

Having said that, some agencies also have the capability to provide a more strategic planning input. With experienced marketers on staff, they will be able to provide real challenge throughout the planning process and may even be able to take strategic work from you. Get your agency involved in planning, both strategically and tactically, and they'll become more responsive and capable of dealing with new challenges.

Principle four: learn to delegate
There's a real skill involved in delegating and often the most successful leaders are master delegaters. Learning to delegate skillfully will raise your agencies' productivity and free up your time to do other things.

A mistake often made by inexperienced managers is the desire to exert too much control over the fine detail. In continually having to control everything, these people merely become blockers to progress as they end up becoming the rate-limiting step that all things must go through.

Managers like this usually either lead an endlessly stressful life trying to cope with the ever increasing number of things under their control or they adapt and learn to delegate. The penny finally drops when they realise that there are always several ways to complete a task all of which have validity and that the sacrifice in letting things happen in a different way is more than repaid by the huge step up in productivity.

Delegation works equally well when dealing with agencies. There is of course a transition process to go through which sometimes involves a little pain but the end result is ultimately worth it.

Principle five: pay more
The old adage of 'pay peanuts, get monkeys' has real relevance when dealing with agencies. It's a harsh commercial reality that if you want twice as much work for half as much money than other clients using the agency you'll have to work doubly hard at all the other principles in this article. It is wrong to assume that big spending clients always get the best service from an agency. Agencies are essentially groups of people and the clients that get the best service are the clients that are most enjoyable to work with.

Rate of pay is not the key variable in this equation but it does play a role. In most good agencies, all staff record the time they work on each clients jobs. Senior agency staff will challenge account directors whose revenues don't cover the resource they are using within the agency. As such, it becomes harder for the account directors to work at low rates of pay long term.

Agencies expect clients to want value for money but a client who drives down budgets all of the time will soon fall out of favour in the agency and will end up with their work at the back of the queue. Like everything in life, it's about balance with the simple solution being to maintain a constant challenge to the agency to provide value without it becoming a source of frustration while working on the other principles of the relationship.

Principle six: expect more
Good clients have a right to expect a high level of service from their agency. If a client upholds the five principles above they can take confidence that they are operating in the premier division of agency management. Premier division clients should expect, demand and not settle for anything less than premier division agencies.

What makes a premier division agency? Huntsworth Health run regular client focus groups to stay abreast of client requirements. Some regular themes arise. Clients want agencies who can engage strategically and deliver tactically. They seek ownership and accountability and expect their agencies to make their lives easier not harder. They look for transparency and accuracy in delivery and finance. They want account directors who can step up and play an active role as a member of their brand team.

Premier division clients expect to pay a fair rate for excellent service and work constructively to resolve any issues quickly. They dislike nasty surprises and want to be kept abreast of important details, not all details. So if you want to get more out of your agency, be a premier division client, set out your expectations of having a premier division agency and like any relationship worth having, spend time working on it.


Working with agencies: Lead your agency, don't manage them. People work better when asked to 'solve a problem', not to 'complete a task'

The problem to solve: "Doctors are not prescribing the 40mg tablet very often. They use a lot of the 20mg and this doesn't offer the efficacy they need. They shy away from the 40mg in case patients get side-effects. The reps detail in a third line slot and want a piece of material to help them push the benefits of 40 mg. Can you come back with some ideas to help us out."

The task: "I need a four page, A5 detail aid, to get the field force talking about the 40mg tablet. Page one should raise the impact of under dosing. Page two should show the Barton Efficacy Study. Page three needs to cover the Vallerup up side effects trial and page four is a summary page."

The more involved your agency is with your business, the easier they will find it to shift direction at short notice. Learning to delegate skillfully will raise your agencies' productivity and free up your time to do other things

The Author
Bruce Ritchie is marketing director at Huntsworth Health and can be contacted on +44 (0)1628 483196 or at

2nd September 2008


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