It should be a partnership.
The number one element that’s critical to success is trust. This may sound obvious, but I’ve been in numerous situations where, for whatever reason, trust has been eroded or never earned. This is why agency-client relationships go south when someone new comes onboard the client-side. They didn’t hire the agency, they don’t know them or what they can do, and as a result they don’t trust them. Or, it happens because some portion of the deliverables wasn’t par with expectations or just didn’t work out. The media plan drove traffic, but generated lower leads, or the creative didn’t perform as expected. Or, it can be as simple as the day-to-day account manager didn’t communicate well, or everything was delivered at 5 pm on the due date. These small things can add up to distrust of the agency which can lead to uncooperative and thus ineffective relationships. Building and maintaining trust is paramount to a working agency-client relationship.
You get what you pay for.
When negotiating an annual hours-based retainer, there are only two real numbers that can move, the hourly rate and the number of hours spent working on the business. For some clients, “winning” this negotiation means a low hourly rate which usually guarantees staffing a piece of business with lower-cost employees, a.k.a. junior staff. The lower you go, the more likely you are to get more time from beginning marketers and less time from senior, experienced staff. My recommendation is to include a line item for “Strategy” or “Executive Oversight” and even specify which executives you want time from that you met in the sales and onboarding process. A line item with 10 or 20 hours a month at $250 or $300 an hour is a steal to tap the 20-year vet who has been there/done that in the agency world and your industry. Otherwise, the only time you’re going to hear from that person is when things go wrong. Guarantee they are involved in your account by making it part of the contract.
(The other way to get extra value from an agency relationship is to venture outside of the NY/LA/SF agency world and find the gems in secondary markets with lower hourly rates. Raleigh is certainly a great place to start.)
How do they think?
When hiring an agency, go through the reporting process. Prospects often ask for sample reports but I believe they are looking at the wrong measures. The results are important but so are the simplicity, readability, and timeliness of the reporting/dashboard. What should be scrutinized the most isn’t the data gathered, or even the results, but the insights given from the data. I would ask for a homerun example, as well as a campaign that didn’t go as well. That will show you how the agency thinks and how they react (or if they react) to data.
There are several other factors that impact the success of the partnership, like strategic thinking, creativity, and experience in your industry; but a fit on the three foundational areas above will go a long way. If you view your agency as a partner and not a vendor, get the right people working on your business, and have a clear view of how the team thinks that lines up with your expectations, you’re going to have a much better shot at mutual success.