There’s an old phrase used to describe the first few weeks or months of marital bliss immediately following the wedding – the Honeymoon Phase. It’s a time in the relationship where both parties are on their best behavior and where any idiosyncrasies or “issues” are swept under the rug. It’s a pleasant time, but one that doesn’t last very long.
Clients and agencies experience this time too. And, while the Honeymoon Phase in an agency/client relationship doesn’t necessarily mean champagne, roses and exotic trips (maybe for some agencies), it does involve learning what clients want, and maybe even more importantly, what they need.
During this phase, communication should extend beyond meetings, conference reports and the occasional client lunch. The critical element needed to bridge from the Honeymoon Phase to a solid, long-lasting client relationship starts with two words – Strategic Planning.
Agencies may have different names or brands for their strategic planning process. If you’re interested, we call ours theIntellistepTM Visual Planning Process. (But, enough about us.) No matter what the process is called, it’s important that both the client and agency agree or vow to partner on the strategic marketing direction. This process includes several steps:
· Congregate: A summit, pow-wow, sit-down, a reception, a conference. Whatever you call it, get together and talk about specific goals and objectives to determine victory. Ideally, this meeting should include individuals who represent a range of roles in their organization’s operations. It shouldn’t be limited to senior management, but rather include employees, vendors and partners. In addition, this meeting should happen in the flesh; no Skype; no Webex or conference calls. Have you ever heard of an online wedding? (Actually, this does happen, but you get the point.) Get together in person and really engage and communicate.
· Educate: The meeting should be a forum to define victory, and, more importantly, to learn and understand a client’s business. This isn’t just for the agency. You would be surprised how much learning goes on from the client side as well. Discuss the details: the organizational structure; with whom they do business; where they do business; their competition; their internal and external stakeholders; any key influencers and what their current position and identity are in the marketplace.
· Create: This phase is fairly straightforward. But in essence this is where ideas are formed and the first draft of the strategic plan is written. Oftentimes, the agency takes the lead on this, but it may make sense to include team members from the client to co-author and own the plan as well. Make building the plan a collaborative process as it will help focus the team on the overall goal of the strategic plan.
· Debate: This is probably where the Honeymoon Phase begins to wind down. Once the foundation of a strategic plan has been laid, it’s time to discuss tactics, timelines and the dreaded “B” word—budget. It’s critical during this deliberation phase that the client and agency agree on how to execute the strategic marketing plan and/or, at the very least, agree on the ultimate goal or victory. This is a time for open, honest and colorful debate, which can crystallize a long-standing client relationship. Don’t cheat this part of the process, embrace it.
· Consummate: Get your mind out of the gutter! This phase of the strategic plan can be the most challenging and difficult, but also the most rewarding. This is where the strategies and tactics that were debated are put to the test. It’s not rocket science, but it’s important to keep the lines of communication open during this phase as well. Remember that plans can be amended and tweaked, and the only way to effectively do this is to have an ongoing dialogue about what is working and what is not.
· Evaluate: Don’t just measure and evaluate at the end of the year; make this a formal part of the strategic plan. Some agencies set up report card systems where they evaluate themselves and then ask clients to grade their work. In addition to grading outcomes or results, consider the output and the outgrowth for an account. Did the effort we put forth build a foundation for future growth or opportunities with new customers? Because of our marketing efforts, were we introduced to new channels or organizations that can help us reach out to the end user?
Renew Your Vows
This advice may seem only applicable to new client/agency relationships; however, even long-standing client/agency relationships can benefit from dusting off their strategic plan, and in essence, renewing their vows to one another.
Why is this important?
Businesses, client and agency personnel, customers, technology and markets are constantly changing. New ideas, opportunities and channels evolve and if an organization’s strategic plan is as old as the client/agency relationship itself, then there’s really no strategy at all, it’s just a dated marketing plan.
The Golden Years
Being in this business for more than 30 years, I have seen firsthand the benefits of having a formalized strategic plan in place. It’s no coincidence that our long-standing and successful clientsbelieve in the strategic planning process. Agencies and clients that can move past the Honeymoon Phase and build a solid foundation through strategic planning will spend years, maybe even decades, together. That’s longer than most marriages these days!