What Does It Mean To Be A True 'Partner'?

What does it mean to truly be a partner? 

This is a question that I've been thinking about over the last few weeks, which has stylistically impacted a number of my recent columns.  It's come up on discussion threads, in some email lists, and it's been bantered about in the comments section -- so let's address it head-on.

The antithesis of a partner is a vendor, and there is a simple point of differentiation.  A partner is a valued relationship.  A vendor is an order-taker.  A partner is someone who adds value beyond the exact words of a contract, where a vendor does exactly what they're told and nothing more.  A partner is willing to say "no" and willing to fight for ideas and engage in intelligent discourse.  A vendor fears conflict and does what they're asked, even if they don't believe it's the right thing to do.

Many people ask me what's wrong with the marketing services business, because there is definitely something wrong with much of it.  My two cents: too many companies and too many people are vendors; not enough are true partners.



In the days of "Mad Men," or what some refer to as the glory days of advertising, agencies were partners and those relationships lasted a very long time.  Agencies would call "BS" on their clients and would fight for what they believed in.  Clients would engage in a healthy debate with agnencies, and the two sides would try to convince the other side of their POV.  In the end we'd see a rationalized, well-thought out effort that would drive appreciable lifts in business.

Today, there are too many "yes-people" in this business.

It feels like people fear conflict and change, which is funny because this business is built on these two cornerstones.  Conflict and change breed innovation -- and whether you're trying to reinvent a brand or a category, you need innovation.  People are also afraid to make mistakes, since our climate is one that doesn't tolerate mistakes very easily.  Yet mistakes are what develop ideas!  You have to be encouraged to make mistakes and learn from them, because no one ever gets it right on the first try!

Yes, people live their lives worrying about mistakes, conflict and change.  They're terrified of making mistakes, they avoid conflict in any way possible and change unsettles them so they try to maintain the status quo. What great strides forward have ever emerged from that mindset?

To mend problems with the business, we need to embrace mistakes, conflict and change.  We also need to end the nickel-and-dime tyranny of the post-procurement age, where agencies are held to the letter of the contract and negotiated to within an inch of their lives. 

On the flip side, agencies need to branch out and provide insights without holding out their hands every single time. Agencies need to take responsibility and offer intelligence without expecting an immediate response in the form of a check, but rather as a deposit in the emotional bank account of the relationship itself. 

We need to recreate an environment where ideas are applauded and partners are encouraged to fight for their ideas without fear of repercussions.  I don't mean that every agency should turn into an arrogant, fascist regime -- but I think that they need to learn to stick up for themselves and their ideas.  Clients need to see the value in their partners and engage in the discussion, and they need to be clear about who the decision-makers are, engaging them early and often. 

Some blame Wall Street for the fear of public opinion, but I don't believe it anymore.   I think the responsibility lies within our teams and ourselves, as only we can impact the relationships of those around us.  Like the saying goes (sort of), you have to affect every relationship one client at a time.

Don't you agree?

10 comments about "What Does It Mean To Be A True 'Partner'?".
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  1. Brad Stewart from Molecule Inc., July 28, 2010 at 10:16 a.m.

    What a refreshing and much-needed point of view. I loved the season opener of Mad Men last week. Fire your clients, be genuine, life is too short.

  2. Barry Bates from adBlocks, July 28, 2010 at 10:26 a.m.

    Everything you say makes sense, but we're a long way from there...

  3. Ken Berquist, July 28, 2010 at 10:30 a.m.

    Cory, thank you!! We all, agencies and clients alike, needed to be reminded of the value of a true partnership and how it should function. I have long thought that the client/agency relationship has moved slowly but inexorably to customer/vendor non-relationship and we that are teaching the junior team members (that will eventually lead the client company and agency) that this is the way it should be! I am forwarding this my database and starting the revolution!

  4. Max Kalehoff from MAK, July 28, 2010 at 10:38 a.m.

    The term "vendor" is not only degrading to agencies who aspire to be partners. It's also degrading to software product companies (or any business) that is building something to transform the experience of its customers. When I think of "vendor" I think of "vending machine".

  5. Robert Wheatley from Emergent -- The Healthy Living Agency, July 28, 2010 at 10:56 a.m.

    This post should be required reading in every agency. It should be taught internally as a fundamental and guiding principle of behavior. I have been in the agency business for a long time, and can recount the places along the way where great ideas, well-executed delivered game-changing results. In each and every case, it involved ideas that were transformational in some way. And by definition required a commitment to stretch and willingness to accept risk. Great work springs from concepts that are unique, ground-breaking and disruptive in some way. It takes the passion and fire in the agency handlers to guide something of this stature through the gauntlet that often takes brilliant concepts to vanilla. Fear has to be the biggest barrier to success in our field. hats off to you for this reminder to everyone about what we're on the planet to accomplish.

  6. Chris Koch from Q1Media, July 28, 2010 at 11:16 a.m.

    Thank you for putting fingers to plastic on these thoughts, good stuff!

  7. Chris Hanburger from aiMatch, July 28, 2010 at 11:31 a.m.

    Really like this post Cory. Hate to be the "yes man" you speak of, but your post is dead on. Its so true, and not only for the agency/client relationship, but as Max points out, it's true across technology/client interaction as well. Partner is a word that was overly used by many in the past. Reality is, a partner is someone that gives of themselves to better all involved. That seems to have been lost at some point, where "partner" sounded more inclusive than "vendor", but the actions weren't there to support the relationship.
    If we take time to learn what our customers interests are, and then act with their best interest at heart, I think we'll see partnerships actually work, and even more, friendships will flourish from mutual respect and trust.
    Hopefully, the fear of competition in our space hasn't limited peoples perspective to see that partners do exist. More often than not, great things are achieved by a collection of people versus one person standing alone.
    Enjoy the day, thanks again for the perspective.

  8. Jonathan Hall from American Pop, July 28, 2010 at 12:18 p.m.

    The polar opposites are Larry Tate (from Bewitched) and Don Draper (from Mad Men). Are you going to be a brown nosing kiss ass or throw clients out of your office. Hopefully somewhere in between works! Being a boutique agency that specializes in the social aspects of social media puts us in the vendor category at face value, though luckily most clients think of us as partners and appreciate our insights. I would much rather lose a client over a difference of opinion on strategy and tactics than losing a client from executing a lousy campaign. It just takes one lousy campaign to end a client relationship, so you might as well fight for the good idea.

  9. Daniel Schwartz, July 28, 2010 at 1:37 p.m.

    This is exactly the way we feel at our agency! We push the idea of a partnership to every client and encourage every campaign to be collaborative in every aspect. ...The online conversations between the consumers, as well as the internal communications between our team and our clients.

  10. Tom Scholl, July 28, 2010 at 6:06 p.m.

    Cory, hooray for you! I was one of those mad men, starting as a copywriter trainee at Campbell-Ewald in 1961 and growing through various agencies as a creative supervisor, CD and eventually a VP at Young & Rubicam. Finally, running my own shop for the last 29 years. Throughout those years, I reverted to the original position of "partner". When discussing client challenges, I find myself referring to "we" -- meaning those who faced those challenges: our client and our agency. There are still many in our business who take that position.

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