Kass Sells 06 Jul 2021 // 3:05PM GMT
As we celebrate the fantastic creativity coming out of Cannes, I’ve been thinking about the kind of collaborative partnerships that make great work possible.
One of my favorite agency-client relationships was with a small tugboat company called Foss Maritime. In one of our earliest meetings, our lead client contact told us: “I’m probably going to be your smallest client, but I want to be your best client.” He got us out of the office and on the water immediately — we went out on his tugs, met with captains, rode along on emergency calls. When a huge windstorm damaged the Interstate 90 floating bridge just outside of Seattle and Foss’s tugs were called on to keep the bridge from coming apart, our client asked us to join him in a helicopter over the scene. “Take pictures, write about what you see, and help us tell our story,” he said. “We’re living our brand right now.”
It was a win-win relationship. We did some of our best work for Foss — and won a lot of awards — and Foss established their brand and became the largest tug and towing company on the West Coast. The best people in the agency wanted to work on the Foss business because they knew they could work with the best people in the agency and client-side, create great work, win awards and make an impact for the client. We loved working with each other, and crucially, Foss trusted our agency enough to bring us inside and help them grow.
The win-win partnership
As someone whose job is to help connect and enable our international operations, the importance of collaboration isn’t lost on me. An agency that just ticks off every box in the brief doesn’t bring new ideas or insightful creativity to the table. A brand that hires an agency to simply execute the tasks handed to it is never going to have a lightning strike creative moment.
This year, as with previous years, ad agencies dominated the PR Lions. This happens for many reasons (I wrote about them five years ago and they remain true) and it says more about ad agencies’ relationship with Cannes than it says about the quality of PR agencies’ work. But there were some shining examples of communications working hand-in-hand with advertising and creative. Grand Prix winner “The Bread Exam” from Spinney’s with McCann and Weber Shandwick is a great example — more than a hundred million people reached through a brilliant integration of creative, social media and media relations.
Bringing everybody to the table, as Spinney’s did, results in work that is relevant, original, impactful, and also accomplishes goals, attracts more gifted people, and inspires more great work.
Two of my favorites from the shortlist, “The Last Blockbuster,” from Airbnb with Weber Shandwick, and “Donation Dollar,” from the Royal Australian Mint with Herd MSL and Saatchi & Saatchi, also feel custom-built to drive media engagement.
Brands, agencies, leaders and employees — we’re all responsible for building that rich, creative environment where creative lightning can strike. It takes a lot of effort, but the outcome is work that communicates a brand’s essence and truly moves people to positive action.
Listening and understanding creates great work
In today’s competitive creative landscape, good work is the product of CEOs, CMOs, digital leads, advertising, media, CCOs and communications leads all working together to build a collaborative, creative environment, where both clients and agency partners feel heard.
After a tumultuous year, leadership is getting the memo about the prioritization of active listening. In our recent research, “Rethinking the Purpose and Meaning of Leadership,” 69% of surveyed leaders believed that learning from their employees, customers and communities will be critical to their success in the coming year. That means listening with the intent of understanding what all stakeholders — including agency partners — need in order to thrive.
WE’s Adobe client in Australia has forged a relationship with our team that brings everyone into the room for the creative process. That level of access has allowed us to tell more complex, interesting stories, and partner on more creative ideas, including #AdobeCQ, an award-winning partnership between WE, Adobe and global futurist Anders Sörman-Nilsson to measure creative aptitude and potential for business leaders. None of that happens without a strong, confident working relationship.
The power of trust and security
Volvo’s classic “Interception” activation during Super Bowl 2015 was a product of trust. Rather than throw millions of dollars against a thirty-second TV spot, Volvo and its ad, media and PR agencies, including Grey New York and WE Communications, partnered together to create a contest. Every time another car company aired an ad, Twitter users had the chance to tweet and win a new Volvo for somebody they loved.
It was an unconventional approach, attempting to hijack the social conversation every time a competitor’s TV spot aired, but Volvo keeps very close relationships with its agencies, and they trusted Grey. That trust paid off — Volvo trended globally and sales for the new XC60 jumped 70% in the months after the game, and the client and their agencies won a Cannes Lion for the work.
Trust, however, requires security. When I was at Wunderman, we (along with WE Communications and other agencies) helped launch the first Microsoft Surface, a product under incredibly tight lock and key.
Microsoft brought us inside, literally delivering agency partners to a locked, windowless room where we could live, breathe and create with the game-changing device. We met with the developers and engineers who designed the Surface so we could understand it from the inside out and bring it to life for people. The high-security gambit worked: the launch and subsequent development of the Surface brand has been one of Microsoft’s biggest hardware success stories. Bottom line: it was the product of trust and inclusion.
These are both examples of clients and agencies who together took their ideas and made them big, exciting and loud. They pushed the limits because they pushed each other to break through conventional solutions to a place where they raised the bar on how to boldly launch new products.
Respect goes both ways
When Jim Stengel was global marketing officer at Procter & Gamble, he championed a culture where brands brought their agency partners inside. He wanted agencies to love working on P&G’s brands — and he held brand managers accountable to make sure they did.
Baking that creative culture into operations is a great way to up-level the relationship between brands and agencies. Great work doesn’t magically happen — it takes great relationships. Much of the work winning at Cannes is successful because those brands did what Foss Maritime, Adobe, Volvo, and Microsoft all did: bring their agency inside, work alongside them every step of the way and nurture an environment in which creativity blooms.
Another secret to two-way understanding: diverse teams. Marketing and communications teams should reflect the audiences of the brand they serve — diverse races, ethnicities, genders and perspectives. Diverse partnerships produce relevant, original and impactful work and build more inclusive brands. Ogilvy’s work with P&G on Dove’s “Courage Is Beautiful” campaign is a great example, and “The Bread Exam” could only have been made by a team that deeply understood the traditional Lebanese culture its audience shared.
In both agencies and brands, building diverse teams starts with putting your money where your mouth is and allocating resources — investing in DEI-focused hiring and retention initiatives, working with partners like The LAGRANT Foundation and ColorComm to bring more diverse voices into the communications industry, and building internal escalators for talented employees.
For brands, the goal is to treat agencies as a key partners in your success, not just vendors. For agencies, the goal is to understand your client and their brand inside and out so you can bring them to life in creative ways. You need to know much, much more than what’s on the brief. Talk to the people who wrote it. Use, interact and when possible, play with the products. Hop on a tugboat. Collect stories and anecdotes until you get to a point where you can truly bring the brand to life.
In the end, like great relationships, ideas are fragile. And they respond better to trust than to excessive handling. Working together, in a collaborative relationship, with everyone at the table, takes continual work and investment. When you get that lightning strike moment, though, you’ll know that investment paid off.