Mad Men set the stage for brand and agency relationships, and as marketers, we’ve been trying to overcome this blow to our image ever since. And while I jokingly refer to myself as the millennial Ken Cosgrove, the fact is that attitudes about conflict in the workplace have evolved significantly since the 1960’s Madison Avenue era, even as our architecture on the moon hasn’t.
Productively dealing with conflict between brands and agencies is essential to not only a good relationship, but good results from your marketing efforts. And the bottom line is that if you’re not experiencing some degree of productive conflict with your agency, you need to re-evaluate what that word means and what it can do for your business.
Brand vs. Agency Conflict
“Conflict” is when ideas clash. There doesn’t have to be a series of escalating attacks or raised voices. It’s simply a disagreement or a misunderstanding. And believe it or not, it often comes down to a singular point of contention. But even a dispute on a single item can lead to significant implications and big decisions surrounding marketing strategy. Conflict handled poorly leads to fights and guaranteed un-met KPIs. A conflict that is handled well leads to revelations.
Maybe your agency is trying to force a conversation about content development while the brand is heads-down on an upcoming sale of their product. I can clearly picture this meeting, where everyone involved is frustrated and asking themselves, “why are they talking about that when this is what we should be talking about?” You could chalk it up to competing priorities, or poor communication, the agency not listening to the brand, or the brand not understanding the value of their blog or all sorts of reasons. But instead of pontificating at length, it’s a lot simpler and more effective to borrow a tactic from your favorite five-year-old and ask “why” until the answer becomes clear.
First, let’s look at this situation from the brand’s perspective:
The agency is pushing for content development.
Because the blog needs more posts.
Because blog traffic has been significantly outperforming other channels.
Because the blog is mostly Evergreen content, and the posts keep bringing high-intent users to the site organically, and these conversions have zero ad cost.
This already helps clear up some of the underlying rationales behind the agency’s recommendations. But before we make up our mind, let’s look at this same situation from the agency’s side to see where the brand could be coming from.
The brand wants to focus on an upcoming sale.
Because the last sale didn’t perform very well.
Because click costs were higher than expected, and the conversion rate was lower than expected.
Because more competitors have entered our advertising space, and we’re sending users to pages that haven’t been updated.
Before we talk about our point of disagreement, what do our agency and brand agree on in this scenario? It’s clear that they’re both after increasing revenue. One could assume revenue is the metric identified as the priority at the beginning of the engagement. The point of disagreement here is how to increase revenue; the agency thinks it’s by eliminating ad costs by focusing on organic strategy, and the brand thinks it’s by improving their paid strategy. Great; now that we know what we’re actually disagreeing on, we can have a real conversation.
Why is the brand prioritizing paid over organic if click costs are rising? Maybe it’s because it’s only in recent years that the annual sale hasn’t performed well, and paid strategy is a major reason that senior leadership wanted to hire the agency in the first place. This context is important to have, and these are questions that need to be answered to drive a marketing strategy forward that will result in increased revenue and appease stakeholders. It’s also a conversation that won’t happen if our fictitious agency and brand avoid the conflict altogether.
Your agency has reasons for pushing the strategy that they do, and the same is true for brands. But if you don’t take the time to push aside the discomfort borne of our conflict-avoidance culture and ask, “why?” you’ll never find out.
Why Conflict Happens Between Brands and Agencies
Conflict in business happens when you get two different people in the same (virtual) room talking to each other. It’s the price we pay for the benefit of having different perspectives, schools of thought, and backgrounds. I made a somewhat inflammatory comment at the beginning of this post that if you’re not experiencing conflict with your agency to some degree, something is broken. And I stand by that. If you’re not clashing with your agency, at least sometimes, it means that someone(s) is keeping their opinion quiet or withholding information.
In defense of the quiet, conflict-avoiding people of the world, it’s incredibly popular and trendy to try to avoid conflict in the workplace. But I write “try” to avoid conflict on purpose because conflict will inevitably erupt anyway. It may just happen behind closed doors, through snide comments, or in private meetings. The best marketing strategy comes from a brand-agency partnership where people feel they can challenge each other’s ideas, ask tough questions, and provide feedback. The worst marketing strategy comes from a quiet partnership, where people avoid disagreements, accept the plan as given, and withhold their insight.
The Right Way to Handle Conflict In The Workplace
Now that I’ve hopefully convinced you that conflict is part and parcel of a healthy brand-agency relationship, let’s discuss the ground rules of how to wield this tool most effectively. Again, we’ll default to some good old playground guidelines as our baseline: no biting, no fighting, and no name-calling. But we’ll add a few extra.
1. Don’t Avoid Conflict
Avoiding conflict is natural. It’s encouraged from a young age, and it is terrible for business. Conflict avoidance leads to “conflict debt,” which is just as fun as any other sort of debt:
As Liane Davey put it: “Conflict debt is the sum of all the contentious issues that need to be addressed to be able to move forward but instead remain undiscussed and unresolved. It can be as simple as withholding feedback and as profound as deferring a strategic decision”.
2. Recognize Conflict as Necessary for Progress
Don’t get angry at someone for having a different perspective and doing their job. Instead of avoiding conflict or taking it as a personal attack, re-frame it as something necessary for progress and part of the reason you’re working with these person(s) in the first place. Conflict is part of the process because it provides the chance to listen and learn. Make an effort to change your team’s attitude about conflict; see conflict as an opportunity to view an issue from multiple angles, not an obstacle you have to fight your way through.
3. Don’t Start at the Beginning
Julie Andrews may disagree, but tracing back threads of conflict to the start can quickly devolve into a “who started it” blame game. When you’re in the moment and ideas are flowing and tempers are high, don’t focus too much on how you got there; that part comes later, with the gift of 20/20 hindsight. At the point of conflict, it’s essential to focus on resolution, not origination.
4. Remember the End Goal
You all want the same thing at the end of the quarter; stellar marketing performance, improved KPIs, happy leadership teams. The agency may have the expertise, but the brand has the industry knowledge. The brand knows the ins and outs of their product/service, but the agency knows the ins and outs of digital marketing. We come from different sides of the field, but we’re all on the same team, and we’re all playing to win.
There’s no doubt about it; actively engaging in conflict is uncomfortable the first few times you try it. But it’s also a critical part of any brand/agency relationship. If you’re afraid of “rocking the boat,” you may make mistakes that could have been avoided. If you withhold feedback from a colleague, you may build up an insurmountable amount of resentment and bitterness. Speaking up about different priorities and perspectives, providing additional context or expertise, or pointing out things the team might have overlooked will ultimately improve your marketing strategy and your relationship with your agency. You may not be so “lucky” to work with Sterling + Cooper, but you’re all on the same team, and the best teams challenge each other.
To get the most out of your partnership and your marketing strategy, you need to be able to reframe how you approach conflict and its place in your business toolbox. Like any tool, deciding whether to use it destructively or constructively is in the hands of the one who wields it. Next time you find yourself in a heated email exchange or tempestuous conference call, lean in and make it productive.