How Culture Impacts Enduring and Mutually Beneficial Relationships

As an agency search consultant, I often get asked, "What wins the pitch?" The simple answer is: chemistry. Strong chemistry between client and agency teams is vital. But chemistry goes much deeper than just wanting to have a beer with someone. It's really all about culture.

Even after fourteen years of running agency reviews, I find one of the most critical meetings between prospective clients and agencies is that first initial face-to-face meeting that hopefully takes place at the agency. While this meeting is typically referred to as the Chemistry Meeting, perhaps a more apt name would be the Cultural Affinity Meeting. This is the first opportunity the client has to meet your team - but more importantly it allows them to get a true sense of your agency's culture before they go through the arduous process of evaluating and selecting an agency partner. In fact, one of the key objectives of the Chemistry Meeting is to "weed out" those agencies that simply aren't the right fit.

I recently sat down with Andrew Graff, CEO of Advertising Agency Allen & Gerritsen (A&G), to get his perspective on how an agency's culture - its "reason for being" - can be articulated during the pitch process. A&G has a truly unique culture and they've been recognized for that culture by being named Advertising's "Best Place to Work" by Advertising Age two years running. For shops like A&G, building a culture where you can be inspired to come to work everyday is one thing, but translating that culture to clients during a quick courtship is often challenging. He offers the following tried and true tips:

Be True To Who You Are
Every agency search begins and ends with culture. You must seek out partnerships that not only allow you to remain true to whom you are, but those that complement your differences. Having a distinct culture has worked well for agencies like Concept Farm with its farm-like theme to help cultivate ideas, The Richards Group with its infamous stairwell to build camaraderie and communication, and The Barbarian Group with its one long desk that meanders through the office, where everyone shares a seat at the same table. Culture is part of a promise that agencies make to their clients and having a distinctive culture is the best way to demonstrate real differentiation from the vast sea of agencies out there.

Bring Your A-Game - And Your A-Team
When participating in an agency review, agencies need to put together the best team based on relevant experience, talent and passion about the brand. Perhaps even more important is to have people at the table that can best articulate, demonstrate and make relevant to the prospective client, their unique agency culture. The question going through every client's mind: "Why do they want to work on my brand?" There's a difference between wanting to work on an airline account and wanting to work on American Airlines. Why? Because American has a distinct culture, a unique set of values and a specific mission, which differ from other airlines. Clearly, having an agency team of tightly-knit co-workers who genuinely like and respect each other, is the price of entry. But clients are yearning for more than just camaraderie. They want an agency that truly understands their unique culture and can demonstrate how their own culture will have a positive and significant impact on their business.

Wear Your Passion On Your Sleeve
Demonstrate to clients that you want to work on their brand - not just in their category - and do it from the very first connection you make with them. Whether it's during prospecting or within the course of a review, make it crystal clear what attracted your agency to that particular brand. Compare and contrast their brand to others in the category. Talk about positive interactions/experiences your team members have had with the brand. Explain how and why your agency's culture complements the prospective client's culture. Show them the attention and affection you will demonstrate should you be lucky enough to win their business - all because it's simply part of the agency culture to do so.

New Business Is A Two Way Street
Use the review process to vet the client's culture as much as they are vetting yours. This is a critical piece of the review process that too many agencies miss. They get so dazzled by the potential revenue and/or prestige the client brand will bring to the agency that they forget to make certain that the client is actually a good match for the agency's culture. Do they demonstrate the same level of risk-taking on which your agency thrives? Are they open to new ideas and new approaches? Will they let you do the kind of work that has made you - and your existing clients - successful? The answers to these questions are not always easy to ascertain - but the best agencies find ways to assess whether or not the potential exists to work with each prospective client in a way that will be mutually beneficial to both client and agency. And when that doesn't appear to be the case, bow out. It will be the best thing you can do for your agency - and for the client.

These tips are essential to help prevail in the new business process. Cultural alignment is so critical to the success and endurance of client/agency relationships, the ANA (Association of National Advertisers) and the 4As (American Association of Advertising Agencies) have issued agency search guidelines to help brands to properly evaluate prospective agency partners from the very start.

As an agency, you too should develop your specific guidelines and requirements to help assess cultural compatibility. In the long run these guidelines will be one of your most important new business tools, allowing you to establish and maintain the best client relationships and garner the respect of everyone in your agency.

Lisa Colantuono is Co-President of AAR Partners, an agency search consultancy since 1980, helping marketers to find the best communications agencies for their marketing needs.