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Working With An Agency? 10 Points to Consider, A Shit Sandwich Notwithstanding


I have thin skin, which comes as no shock to people who know me well. As a result, every few months I go through a mini-meltdown triggered by a spurt of what I find to be degrading criticisms related to work performance.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that criticism is part of the package and I have a healthy appreciation for constructive feedback as moving effectively from conception to execution requires it. But abuse is another thing, and in speaking with peers across the industry, insulting behavior towards agency partners is not terribly unusual.

“One of the partners at my first agency job told me, ‘You have to learn to appreciate the taste of eating shit sandwiches,'” an industry colleague told me.

When tempers flare, I try to remind myself that things may be happening behind the scenes, about which I am unaware. After all, there are very real business, economic and political pressures in every industry we serve. Publicly traded companies have boards to contend with, sales targets must be met and objectives achieved. This is business after all, and challenging expectations are set upon us daily — and they should be. I don’t approach it with rose-colored glasses. It’s just that in my experience, abusive feedback cycles do not have to be the norm.

Prior to my past 13+ years in agency life (this time around), for nearly seven years I worked for Progress Energy (now Duke Energy) under the leadership of CEOs Bill Cavanaugh, Bob McGehee and Bill Johnson. Not a day went by that I did not work with the executive team to some degree, and at no time did I have a a member of the C-suite berate me, even when I made mistakes. Keep in mind, the energy industry is a tough, hard-scrapple business. These were former-Nuclear Navy leaders and attorneys I was working for — not for the faint of heart. So I’m not in any way suggesting that every executive treats communicators or agencies like expendable assets. But many do.

“Clients get the work they deserve,” said David Minifie, a former Marine, Procter & Gamble brand manager, and now Chief Experience Officer & Executive Vice President, Corporate Strategy, at healthcare giant Centene, which ranks 66 in the Fortune 500. “If we give you bad creative briefs, or no brief at all – and then belittle your work and berate your people – we’ll get slow, crappy work with mediocre results at best.  On the other hand, when we invest in building the relationship, commit to a long term partnership, and respect your people and honor your efforts with strong creative briefs and open communication – we get great, fast turn-around work that builds the business.”

I just do not believe anyone deserves to eat shit sandwiches on a regular basis — not me, not our Elasticity team nor my colleagues across the agency world. Thus, if you work with an agency partner, here’s some perspective. Take it for what it’s worth. Ten points that I would like to think applies to all of us: 

  1. We are partners: Perhaps organizational vernacular labels agencies vendors, but the reality is, we are partners. Our ideas and execution greatly contribute to your success, and potentially, your failure.  
  2. We are not a commodity: Our work does not lie on a shelf waiting to be plucked out by the next chief marketing officer. What we do is a craft, what we create is unique to your specific needs, and if you think it can be turned on and off like a light switch, you are sorely mistaken.
  3. We are not punching bags: Again, pressures are real inside large and small organizations. CEOs can come down on communications chiefs because the wind isn’t blowing the right way one afternoon. However, transference of that abuse onto the agency helps no one. It simply creates hard feelings and resentment.
  4. Things don’t happen overnight: It is a marathon, not a sprint. Building brand reputation or marketing a product or service takes time, methodology, hard work and perhaps even some luck. Anyone can make a promise. Find an agency that tells you it can happen overnight and I’ll show you the same agency that’s out of business next year. 
  5. Try to be consistent, and at the very least, aware of your inconsistencies: It isn’t uncommon for business objectives, and therefore, strategic communications direction to change.  But if you send us down one path, and then we do it to the letter of the law, recognize that as opposed to dressing us down for not having the most up-to-date information that might live solely in your head.
  6. Realities change: What worked for you in 1987 — pitching earned media only to launch your product or that awesome fax machine marketing campaign — may very well not make a blip in 2017 in spite of your awesome bangs and turtleneck.  
  7. For every action, there is a reaction: There are laws of physics that exist even in marketing communications (although most of us cannot spell “fizix” without spellcheck). Let’s say organizational budget cuts drive you to remove one tactical tool. Keep in mind that it very well may cause a chain reaction and impact the effectiveness of another asset, so don’t come looking for scalps once it occurs. 
  8. Manic behavior solves nothing: We tell this to our Elasticity team. Screaming, inducing panic, manic behavior — none of it will solve your problems. Find your inner Daniel Goleman and use his emotional intelligence roadmap. If so, I can promise you that your perspective will be delivered with far greater clarity and appreciation. 
  9. Manage up: If we provide clear guidance as to how long something make take to deliver, it helps everyone involved to share that timeline up the chain with your superiors as opposed to keeping it tucked away until the previously established and highly unrealistic deadline has passed and all hell breaks loose.
  10. Measure expectations: We owe you a candid outlook on what we can achieve. Yes, we get that you’d like to see your story on the front page of the New York Times or your logo on the moon like Jason Bateman’s character in “Hancock.” Lofty expectations are important. The bar should be set high and we will move heaven and earth to achieve. But let’s understand the reality of what we’re dealing with as we work to reach our objectives.

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