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Marketer, Advisor, Partner, Confidant

From BMA Knowledge Base

She was a young woman, maybe 26 or 27 years old. An account executive, she had been working on several high-tech accounts in the agency, touching a littie bit of everything from advertising to Internet to brochures to trade shows. About six months into the job, she come to me and asked for a transfer to our consumer promotion business. She said that she really liked the work, but wanted to work on some consumer stuff, something that she could relate to. Something that her friends readily recognized when she told them what she worked on all day.

So she went off on an interdivisional transfer to work on a well-known soft drink client. When she said good-bye, she looked like she had been released from high-tech hell.

Guess what? Six months later she was back. Why? To paraphrase her words, "I went from being a partner with a client to being an executor. I went from seeing the whole client business picture and understanding how that strategically related to the work I was doing to just seeng a tiny piece with little overall context." She added that she’d stopped talking to generalists who had no walls between different communications tools and starting working for specialists who only wanted to cover their specific function. I moved from a world where integration wasn’t just a word but a way of life, to a world where integration meant using the same photo twice, she said with some exasperation. But here are her most telling words: I miss the intellectual challenge of trying to figure new and different ways to accomplish communications. Many in the consumer world that I went to were reluctant to depart from anything but the tried and true.

In the 29 years that I’ve worked in this business; I’ve been fortunate enough to work on both the buslness-to-business and consumer side (although l’ve had much more concentration in the businesess-to-business area). The experience of this young lady mirrors mine -- and I believe, is indicative of what is different about agency relationships in business-to-business and consumer arenas.

For starters, with the exception of a few mega-budget clients, most business-to-business budgets are relatively small. Because of this -- and the downsizing of a decade ago that brought most business-to-business marketing communications organizations down to a precious few -- there isn’t money or time to build walls between functions, or even to have specialists in any one functional area. The business-to-business environment demands clever, integrated, out-of-the-box thinking to make up for its inability to throw money after problems.

B-to-B Agency Works Higher
Compound this by taking a look at a day in the life of the average business-to-business marketing communications manager. This person has become a jack of all trades, who spends a good deal of time working with product people on the inside and on a variety of external matters. Unlike their consumer counterparts, they don’t have enough time to spend free-wheel thinking about what’s going on in the marketplace. As a result, developing strategies or planning tactics -- recognized by the marcom managers as critically important -- is increasingly becoming an agency responsibility. Net result? The business-to-business agency works higher in the client organization than their counterpart on the consumer side. I spend a lot of time with CEOs, talking their business issues, not just their marketing communications concerns.

Can Have A Major Impact
Further, the agency’s purview becomes much broader, with the ability to choose from all the functional tools in the marketing communications arsenal to find those that would be most effective for their clients. But here’s the biggest and most exciting part: it is relatively easy to have a major impact in the marketplace when things are done right. How? First, the ground to be covered is relatively contained (and therefore easier to get your arms around). Second, strategizing and appling marketing communications is not a universally appiled skill across all client organizations that may be competing in a segment. As an agency, when you can do both with success, you will make a tangible impact on your clients’ bottom line.

Agency Can Lead Effort
While the hypothesis sounds great, in the real world, what’s most important are results. Here are some examples of where a business-to-business agency has made a dramatic impact on a client. One high-tech company had its sales force calling on relatively low-level people who signed the purchase orders for multi-million dollar products. The business wasn’t growing at a rapid enough pace until an agency-led effort used advertising and public relations to reach the customer in the corner office to secure an executive level of brand awareness and acceptance. Simple, but effective.

Client/Agency Partnership
Here’s another; a high-tech company had a tremendous array of products and was the acknowledged leader in its field. But the field was approaching a point where it was constricting the company’s growth. It was the client-agency partnership that convinced client top management to consider positioning the company in a bigger segment, with unlimited growth. The communications materials created to bring this strategy to life provided the internal guidance for all employees to start thinking and acting in a different way. Result? The company seemed to have gotten bigger literally overnight.

Marcom Extension
A third example illustrates the value of the agency as an extension of the company’ marketing communications organization. The company in question was having difficulty selling a product, specified by architects. As part of its qualified due-dilligence, the agency went out and talked to the architects, bringing a product sample along. In the course of their discussions, the agency learned two amazing things: first, the architects viewed this product as an intrusion on their designs. They had to use it, but they hated it. Second -- and this is the most important revelation -when the agency representative handed the product to the architect during the interview, it became obvious that the product’s quality impressed the architect so much that they didn’t want to put it down. Borrowing a forced sampling technique from packaged goods marketers, the architects were mailed product samples along with all of the information necessary to specify the product by the client’s catalog numbers. Orders for this product skyrocketed.

Bottom line: what does a company get out of an agency relationship?

Objectivity: the agency doesn’t have to drink the company bath water and can afford to think outside the box.

Intimate Customer Knowledge: the agency can spend time with a customer that the client no longer has available.

Strategy Shaping: the Agency can put meaningful and differentiating strategy around tactics.

Breakthrough Voice: the agency can help focus on the thing that will make a difference.

Resource Stretcher: an agency can help a cilent get more out of limited resources.

A Brand: an agency won’t got lost in the forest of products.

So, the truth is; that young account executive, astute beyond her years really put her finger directly on the difference between business-to-business and consumer the client/agency relationship.