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09 April 2019 by Adam Smithson

The Three Crucial Ingredients to an Award-Winning Client/Agency Partnership

The Three Crucial Ingredients to an Award-Winning Client/Agency Partnership


Back in 2012 Susan Rahr was reflecting on 7 years as the Sheriff of King County, Washington when she began wrestling with the epidemic of excessive force within the police department, a police department that she herself had been at the helm of for the best part of a decade. Rahr would routinely interview officers involved in incidents that had escalated and resulted in police brutality and the answer she received every time was the same.

Ask. Tell. Make.

First you ask someone to do something, then you tell them, after that you damn well make them do it. This is the police approved message that was being drummed into cadets the minute they arrived at the academy. It needed to stop. Rahr took the vacant Academy Director role and began a process of systemic change throughout the Washington Police Force.

“There are two things cops hate”, Rahr mentions, “The way things are, and change’. Rahr knew should be up against years of conditioning and incredible resistance to her idea from the outset. What Rahr initiated was a root and branch overhaul of the military style approach to confrontation in favour of a more empathetic approach to diffusing potentially volatile situations in the field. Instead of an attitude of aggression, Rahr promoted an empathy led guardian mindset in the young officers.

In 2015, her reforms drew the attention of President Barack Obama, who appointed her to his Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The group’s first recommendation, in its final report, calls for police departments across the country to “embrace a guardian mindset to build public trust and legitimacy.”

Learnings from the approach that Susan Rahr undertook at the King County police department can be applied to all aspects of your personal/work life but what I want to focus on here is an empathetic approach to the client/agency relationship.

The dictionary definition of empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Put another way it is an individual’s propensity to be able to develop an affinity or build rapport with another person. That’s what it boils down to in a client/agency sense too, identifying with the brands core values, being acutely aware of what they are trying to achieve or change and achieving those goals through a shared sense of togetherness.

When an agency truly empathises with their client and the client reciprocates that empathy, great things can be accomplished. However, this has to be a broad stroke from the boardroom of both organisations, a top-down company ethos that is shared by the people at it's heart.

The wonderful thing about an empathic approach to the client/agency relationships is that it leads to a greater, more meaningful understanding between the two parties and in that environment a culture of trust can flourish. Trust, just as much as empathy, is the bedrock of a successful relationship.

A recent study by global management consultancy ID Comms found that trust between brands and their agencies was at an all-time low with 45% of respondents citing trust levels as either ‘low’ or ‘very low’.

Susy Pyzer-Knapp, a consultant at ID Comms, said: "The vast majority of both agencies and advertisers agree that a close, trusted relationship is likely to lead to better marketing performance but, sadly, right now levels of trust are much lower than they should be. This is reducing the ability of digital partners to use their skills and knowledge to help advertisers grow their businesses."

Trust, as they say, is the most difficult thing to build but the easiest thing to tear down but if you are truly in safe hands with your agency then trusting their experience, expertise and judgement is a prerequisite for an effective partnership.

When empathy and trust are present a wonderful alchemy occurs that creates the defining aspect of any brand/agency relationship – bravery. This by-product of the amalgamation of empathy and trust allows brands to throw the shackles off and creatively break new ground. To be a pioneer amongst it’s peers and leave footprints for others to follow.

When Nike’s agency pitched them the concepts behind the groundbreaking ad featuring Colin Kaepernick and the tagline “Believe in something, even if it costs you everything” it created shockwaves, not just through the advertising world, but also the political world too. From Capitol Hill right through the corridors of power at The White House people were talking about the ad it had created real debate. There’s no question that running the ad was a risk, senator Ted Cruz claimed that Nike were now “on the wrong side of the people” the ad prompted 100s of YouTube videos of consumers burning their Nike training shoes but what Nike had achieved, using empathy, trust and bravery was far more important than that. They reframed the entire conversation.

With the stakes higher than ever in an ever increasingly competitive set you could be forgiven for thinking this was a move that simply would not be worth the risk, but commercially and culturally Nike reaped the benefits. Nike CEO Mark Parker explained;

“We know it’s resonated strongly with consumers obviously here, in North America, but also around the world. It’s really transcended the North American market to touch people around the world.”

“We’ve seen record engagement with the brand as part of the campaign,” he added. “Our brand strength is a key dimension that contributes to the ongoing momentum that we’re building across the Nike portfolio. This is how we connect and engage in a way that’s relevant and inspiring to the consumers that we are here to serve.”

Starting with empathy creates a trophic cascade that trickles down through the brand/agency relationship triggering the positive changes required to do great work. The ability to empathize informs understanding, understanding leads to trust and then, crucially, when you trust someone it allows you to be brave. Brave brands change the world.​