The decision’s been made. You’re going to bring on board a new healthcare marketing agency. The reasons might vary, e.g. your former agency let you down in some way, expectations weren’t aligned, new leadership wants a fresh point-of-view, your agency disagrees with your future creative direction, or maybe this is your first agency. But it doesn’t matter, because you’re moving forward.
I’ve witnessed the good and bad of client-agency relationships through multiple lenses – ad agency account management, client-side marketer, global brand consulting senior executive and since 1999, agency owner at branding and marketing firm Trajectory.
The Power Of A Client And Agency Partnership
I believe deeply in the power of a strong client and agency partnership. I’ve seen the results as a client, and have been a part of achieving the results in my former consulting life and here at Trajectory. The key is partnership. But it’s a word that’s been so casually tossed around, that it’s lost its meaning. The dictionary definition is “the state of being a partner or partners”, or “an association of two or more people as partners.” Synonyms include cooperation, association, collaboration, coalition, alliance, relationship, connection.”
For a client and agency to thrive together, these are the intangibles pivotal to success. But for an agency to be able to do its best work, which translates to solving client challenges and building stronger brands and stronger businesses it needs to know that it’s on solid ground. That there’s real cooperation, collaboration and commitment. Because an agency needs to have the courage to travel down a new path, explore new areas and make clients feel uncomfortable (in an exciting way of course). But this requires being confident in their partnership.
10 Considerations For New Agency Selection
Back to your decision to bring a new healthcare marketing agency on board. In no particular order, here are 10 considerations as you work through the process.
1. Category Expertise + Passion. We believe that creativity is fueled by knowledge, not stifled by it. It’s important to know the rules of the road before you can break them. There’s no replacement for having a deep understanding of, and passion for, the client’s business. Same goes for audience understanding. To inspire and move people to action, you need to understand them. Not just how old they are, or what they are, but why they do what they do. Armed with this knowledge, this gives an agency the ability to develop powerful insights. And great work usually has a smart insight at its core. Also out of insight comes proactivity. Insights inspire new ways of thinking about the business, new product and service concepts and new angles to address problems.
2. Fresh Point-of-View. While we believe in the power of category knowledge, we think it’s most potent when combined with imaginative stretch. We think one without the other makes for less courageous and stand-out solutions. Big insights and ideas often come from outside the client category. The key is to be able to take your knowledge, shake it up and apply it in new ways. In this way, agencies help their clients become the disruptor rather than the disrupted. It’s on us to question everything about the business proposition we’re putting forth into the world, paying no homage to sacred cows.
3. Effective vs. Efficient Work. Keep your eye on the ultimate prize. If you’re head of marketing, your job isn’t only to produce efficient work, but rather effective work. Work that builds brand and drives business growth. You can be efficient with process or pre-pro work, but the underlying work itself had better be effective based on an understanding of how and who customers really are. Somehow in this era of time‐sheets and efficiency tools, the commitment and passion for excellence can fall by the wayside. Work is “good” enough to leave the building. There’s an air of compromise. But time and again, its been objectively proven that big ideas generally make big returns that make up for the expense upfront. Not just in advertising ‐ in business. Lesson: be bold and brave. Be courageous.
4. Overarching Brand View & Stewardship. It behooves anyone in charge of a brand to choose a healthcare marketing agency partner who shares your brand view. Do your partners subscribe to the idea of brands as an organizing principle for your organization and your people? If not, then what navigation system do they suggest? Along these same lines, you might have multiple specialist agencies in your stable, e.g. digital, SEO, content marketing and social media, etc. However, some agency needs to have a holistic brand understanding, to ensure brand message, tone of voice, design, communications and actions are coherent across hospitals, service lines, patient practices and channels in order to continuously build brand equity.
5. Matching of Profiles. Borrowing on the idea of online dating services, it’s likely that very few people you meet will be compatible with you specifically. So think about the dimensions most important to you in an agency. In the case of Trajectory, we match up best with smaller marketing departments. We’re a smaller agency, which means leadership is working on your business, we’ve run client businesses, understand the bigger picture and can think ahead to what challenges or opportunities might lie ahead. We pride ourselves on working with our clients so closely that it feels like a seamless extension of our client’s marketing department.
6. Similar Definition of Excellent Work. Obviously, it’s work that makes a client happy. And work that drives business success. But more than that, client and their healthcare marketing agency should align on the definition of excellent work, and of creativity, to manage each other’s expectations. There is ample evidence that creative advertising has a far better chance of achieving better commercial results. So it should be a no‐brainer for clients to want the best creative from their agencies. And for agencies to constantly strive to provide groundbreaking ideas. But there needs to be a common ground definition.
7. Client Involvement In The Process. Do you want to be involved earlier in the creative process as part of your agency team. Creating exceptional client/agency relationships is critical to delivering great work. Collaboration builds a deeper level of trust which allows the agency to have more meaningful and open conversations about your business challenges. And yet, the rub of so many agency‐client relationship issues is this notion of the agency not “adding value”, not bringing “thought leadership” nor “business building ideas” to their clients.
8. Honesty. The relationship between healthcare marketing agency leadership and the leadership of their client’s companies (including Marketing leaders), should be strong and built on stark (though respectful) honesty. With no room for second guessing. Building depth to these relationships allows for difficult conversations, allows for respect to grow, and allows for the right work to be produced. An agency is not there to keep a client happy. The agency is there to do great work which helps the client company achieve their marketing objectives..
9. Communication. As with any productive partnership, there is a give and take required from both sides to ensure success. But what can the agency do to uphold their end of the bargain? Characteristics like reliability, trustworthiness and communication are key. Establishing a cadence of engagement and communication that goes beyond excellent customer service. Clients want to feel that they are being listened to throughout the partnership. And, being a “team,” agencies need to uphold the “we’re here for you” promise. For this to happen, agencies need transparency into the clients’ true pain points and objectives. This quid pro quo must be sustained throughout the agency-client relationship, as true and effective collaboration requires consistency and the upholding of trust and flexibility throughout its entire length.
10. Results. Is the end-game really great creative and award winning healthcare marketing campaigns? Given the ever-changing shift in marketing budgets and the availability of analytics, integrated strategy and award-winning campaigns are no longer enough for brands to justify agency partnership to their stakeholders. Because when it comes down to it, what is a “partner” or a “strategy” without results? Today, data-proven results is the #1 “gotta-have-it” indicator of success. Which means results that impact the bottom line and the growth of the business.
Agency: Focus on the creative product, build a culture that fosters the process and look after your people.
Client: Invest in your agency relationships from the top, let the agency under the tent and liberate them to be creative in thinking and output.
Both: Be courageous (based on a mutually agreed definition).