Five Relevant Fundamentals for Marketing Agencies

[Estimated Read Time: 7 minutes]


Healthcare marketing and communications are in a state of rapid change. In fact, some would say it’s sideways compared to how it looked when I joined GSW in June 2000. Between customers, the competitive landscape, regulations, promotional strategies, and media options, I would agree. Yet, at the same time, some things haven’t changed at all.

This year, we are celebrating our 40th anniversary at GSW. With this milestone, I have found myself reflecting on our history as well as my own time here. I recently came across an article my colleague and former boss Joe Daley wrote in May 2001 about how to get the best out of your agency. What struck me most is how his recommendations compare to today’s world. What I found is the fundamentals remain just as relevant 15 years later, with just a hint of a modern twist.


Your contract defines the expectations

The most important step to success, with increasing intensity

The key fundamental to getting your agency relationship off to a strong start is by first establishing a foundation for how you will work together. That foundation is your contract. It allows you and the agency to be in alignment on processes, the plan, and marketing preferences. The type of contract you agree to with your agency will drive their behavior.

What is most important to you? The age-old adage of speed, quality, or price? Pick two, because you will be disappointed if you expect equal results on all three. The two you emphasize is what you will get from the agency. Do you want your agency to provide a strategic support, project execution, specialized services, or a combination? Do you want individual projects, or comprehensive communication plans that support a single or multiple channel? You must answer these questions before you enter into a new relationship with an agency so the agency knows what to deliver.

Healthcare advertising and promotion budgets are highly pressurized today. This makes it more important to align all agency support consistent with their contract and with a clear work plan. These plans must address more connected customers (healthcare professionals, consumers, patients, payers), and they must leverage the power of data to create integrated programs and deliverables that connect to the target audience. Today’s agencies must deliver on strategy rather than, as in days past, on throwing everything against the wall and hoping something sticks.

Taking the time to lay a strong foundation with your agency is worth it, because you will be on the same page, and better prepared to execute on a plan to support your business objectives.


Define the team

Still very important, but not much has changed with this step

The very next fundamental after the contract is signed is for you, as the client, to be heavily involved in the staffing of your agency team.” These are the people who will be tasked with delivering your desired outcomes, so it’s in your best interest to spend the time and provide input as to who the team is made up of.

Thinking about your agency as an extension of your internal team will help narrow down the talent. Being clear and open about the way you want to work, what is valued (and what is not), will help the agency align the best resources for a high-performing team.

As a client, you want the senior person assigned from the agency contributing to your business. Increasingly important is to ensure strong connection points of talent and chemistry where the most time is spent between the client and agency. This is often not at the most senior-level person, but rather the person responsible for the day-to-day management of the relationship.

Taking the time to create a strong team that supports your contract helps ensure that you receive the best allocation of staff to deliver against your needs.


Outline expected behaviors (for both sides!)

A critical step because of the increasing complexity of the healthcare marketplace

The old adage that your agency wants nothing but to deliver against your requests is still foundational today. It is a pure service business fueled by great people. The client-agency relationship is ultimately a creative process that makes art–art that helps define a brand and reach your objectives and goals. When this key step is in sync it can be beautiful, but it is never perfect..

There are numerous lists of what both sides need; all typically center around open communication, honesty and directness, inclusion vs exclusion, accessibility and availability, innovation, risk-taking appetite, and addressing conflict. All of this should be directly expressed in how you are going to work. For some clients taking the time to establish a partnership credo and desired behaviors helps establish a great start to a client-agency relationship. The best agency relationships I have witnessed include discussing the partnership on a regular basis and collecting feedback both ways from the key stakeholders who influence the contractual relationship. If you’re not doing this, you are more likely to see misaligned behavior leading to performance that misses expectations.

Early in my career, when I was on the client side, I had a supervisor ask me a question: Is our account one that the best people in the agency wanted to work on? Take a look and see if the agency people want to be on your team or if they are trying to get off of it. If you don’t take this hard look, you don’t know if you’re getting the best talent available to you in the agency. Outlined expected behaviors will influence the composition of the agency team supporting you.


Share information and processes

Always a fundamental, but it hasn’t changed much

 Performance should be shared both ways in the client-agency relationship. Direct, honest, and in-the-moment feedback will help both sides perform to their optimal level. Many think that feedback is only negative, but it can be positive too, and should be. Your agency will feel good knowing that they are making a difference in your business. This has always been true, and it remains so today in 2017.

With modern technology that allows us to be connected to anywhere at any time, I still believe that real face time (not Facetime!) is extremely valuable to the client-agency relationship.

Starting off the client-agency relationship with on-boarding is still important. It helps to align the processes for information sharing and job development for both sides. It brings the team together to get to know one another and become more heavily invested in the success of the relationship. It provides the opportunity to have coffee or a meal with that individual you never see in person. It sets up future phone calls and video conferences to be more collaborative and effective since you can actually picture the person you’re speaking with.

As a client, you should plan to visit your agency for a couple days each year. It shows engagement and support for the agency that work towards your business goals each day. It also allows more time for those important social interactions that you can only have when you are together.


Create a feedback mechanism

Always extremely important and has evolved significantly

What is different from the year 2001 is that we now have almost endless access to data. In the past, it just wasn’t readily available as it is today. Data drives decisions. It is instant feedback. Setting measurements at the beginning of a project allows easy tracking. My suggestion is to create a partnership dashboard to track key metrics for the brand and corresponding programs, and touch base on it via email on a regular basis. Tie these metrics back to the expectations you set up in your contract.

While our industry looks vastly different than it did in 2001, it’s reassuring to know that the way we’ve been doing business at GSW has always been focused on these core fundamentals. That’s why we’ve been able to deliver outstanding results for our clients for 40 years, and will continue to do so far into the future. I’ll look forward to doing another look back in another 15 years, but I have a feeling many of the basics will stay the same.


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