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?