Beyond The Sweet Talk: Time to Commit To Partnerships

Once market research agencies were simply “suppliers”: brought in when clients had a specific research need, often forgotten as soon as that need was fulfilled.

Yes, but will it last? (c) A.Gordon, 2008

But agencies (and even some clients) yearned for more than these fleeting and unsatisfying encounters. We wanted to encourage fidelity, and to demonstrate the virtues of long-term stable relationships. Nowadays we all talk “Partnerships”,  “Key Account” managers abound, and often elaborate client servicing structures have been developed. Yet, while we all understand the theoretical value of genuine partnerships, I’m not convinced that things have changed all that much or that many client-agency partnerships actually yield the value they should.

Here’s my take on three  big issues that  get often in the way:

1. Relationships Aren’t Partnerships. No-one would deny that good personal chemistry between a Client Servicing executive and the client’s senior MR and marketing executives goes a long way. Overly cosy relationships cause complacency however, and while they can be great at helping grow revenue incrementally they seldom (on their own) yield the step change in value that could be possible.  This is because really great “next step” research partnerships require a degree of entanglement: the business issues should be obvious to both sides, response to consumer trends can be acheived in real time because the systems to respond are already in place and data from various sources gets combined and analysed creatively. In essence, multiple touch-points and processes are necessary. Having one person in charge of the partnership is fine, but they must not become gatekeepers. If your relationship is fundamentally about 2-3 people, there are inevitable bottlenecks in information flow, failures in understanding of capabilities and the intrusion of personal agendas.  As an example, few Client Service people understand (or appreciate) all of their company’s services and methods equally well and many opportunities are therefore missed. An even more basic problem of relying on “great personal relationships”, is that when one of the key people leaves, the whole relationship can go up in smoke. This is a particular issue in growth markets where key executive turnover is high.

2. Key Account Syndrome. It sounds great to be designated a “key account” – it implies importance, focus, specifically designated resource, clear communication and so on.  It is sad that occasionally this classification can lead to hubris among clients (I can ask for whatever I want, whenever I want it – I’m “key”!) and to a correspondingly subservient unwillingness to argue or convey bad news on the part of a few agency executives. Ultimately that path leads to quality and delivery issues.  But a bigger issue comes when the “key client” tag is applied without thought for what can realistically be delivered. Is the client “key” just because they are big, or does it reflect potential for development and service enhancement? When agencies start calling clients “key” or “partners”, without underpinning this with clear thinking about how they can increase research value they are simply asking for the client to treat this new designation as an opportunity to squeeze for discounts.

3. It’s about Programmes, not Projects. Possibly it’s the influence of the plethora of magazine articles on “repairing your marriage” or whatever, but too often I hear all the issues between clients and agencies being ascribed to “lack of communication”, “failure of trust”, “personality clashes” etc. Yes, honest talking is a good first step in any relationship, but let’s be clear: this is a business relationship and to get mutual value out of it you need to move rapidly from talking sweetly to talking substantively. A genuine MR partnership implies less focus on routine chats about the management of everyday research  and more in-depth discussion of how you can work together to extract extra value from the research dollar. This is much more than the agency talking about it’s various services, or the client keeping the agency abreast of it’s marketing plans  (though these do deserve attention!). For me a real client/agency partnerships requires a commitment to designing on-going research programmes  that utilise a range of research methods and skill sets, and focus on tackling core business issues.  Such partnership programmes enable innovative techniques to be trialed and ensure that each phase of the research builds on the learnings of earlier phases. This increases research value in a manner that a succession of loosely linked projects does not. Yes we all talk about this, but by and large it doesn’t happen often enough. It’s not easy – it requires both client-side and agency MR executives to move from being order-takers to being pro-active thinkers. It also needs time set aside for forums where people with some breadth of experience and in-depth research skills can focus on bigger issues than simply operations or price.

A fourth issue, not touched on here, is that good partnerships move beyond “individual response” to specific problems and develop clear processes to avoid everyday issues and crises from accumulating and festering (but that’s a post in itself!). There are plenty of other challenges as well. But they all illustrate one over-riding theme: We increasingly believe in the idea of client-agency partnerships, and the need for research to be more “solutions” orientated. Yet we often judge client relationships in personality and “quantum of communications” terms. This is insufficient: personalities and communications can deliver relationships but as client needs and structures get increasingly complex they cannot deliver genuine partnerships and useful research programmes. To do that both sides need to evolve forums, processes and systems to think more cleverly about research that delivers long-term value. This implies a wider investment of brainpower and time.  But, just as a young couple needs ultimately to move from sweet talk about last night’s date to careful consideration of how to educate the kids or finance a mortgage, so to will MR partnerships have to evolve if they are to prosper.

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