Taking a Tinder Approach to the Agency-Client Relationship

Zoe Dunn is co-founder and principal of Hale Advisors.
Zoe Dunn is co-founder and principal of Hale Advisors.

Do I have a hot new app for you! No, it's not a pill reminder or a physician/patient discussion tool or even a chip embedded in a syringe that monitors compliance and adherence to our products. My friends, this is the app for you to help choose your agency partner—think Tinder for agencies.

Imagine if you could choose your agency partners based on the attributes most appealing to you (creative bent, blended pricing, global reach). With a simple swipe to the right or the left, you could secure them an agency roster position or doom them to forever languish in the annals of procurement's filing cabinet.

Some of you may think I'm heartless (agencies?), some of you might think I'm flippant (procurement?) and some of you may think that I'm simply brilliant (frustrated brands?). But the reason this is even a consideration is that we have a broken system that really needs fixing.

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There are too many unsatisfied brands, too many bloated agencies, too many mistakes, and too much agency bullying. Perhaps you are locked into an enterprise agreement with a huge global agency, and you're forced to use their solutions or their partners' services, even if you want a fresh approach. Many agencies resemble the millennial stereotype. They are somewhat entitled and looking for the easy way out.

Depending on your brand's scale or scope, you can easily find yourself working with your agency's B or C team. But what if your brand is clamoring for fresh thinking, innovative ideas, and recommendations based on insights across the industry?

With most agencies pushing what they are best equipped to deliver (versus a solution to your specific needs) or the latest bright shiny object, they spend most of their time trying to come up with the thing that will keep them in your pocket and off the kill list. But many of them aren't even worried about being on the chopping block because their executive relationships are so deeply entrenched with the organization, they're bulletproof—no matter how irrelevant or bloated their solutions.

Don't get me wrong—there is some good work out there. My target here is the McAgency of late and not all those talented people with the next amazing idea that are looking to advance their client's position and not just their own.

But I miss the good old days—post-Mad Men era but before pre-electronic submissions—when the relationships between agencies and brands was more symbiotic. Those were the days when a small creative shop down the street could pitch a billion-dollar brand and win. When creativity was more important than economies of scale. When fresh thinking was required and the brand team held all the cards (instead of the “bean pushers,” whoever they might be). Now the field has changed dramatically. Many of the smaller agencies have been absorbed by huge agencies and holding companies and can't function independently, having neither the finances to pitch the business nor the resources to deliver at scale.

See also: Is This the End of Agency Diversification?

In some ways, we've made our lives simpler by not having to evaluate so many potential partners. In other ways, we've really sold ourselves short on getting the freshest, most innovative ideas from the hungriest, scrappiest, and most creative businesses. Sure, they may not have the pedigree, but they've got something to prove. They don't rest on their laurels, not even for a minute. With these guys, there is no B or C team; there is only the A team.

Agencies need to find a way to package their offerings, writes Dunn. Photo credit: Highways England/Creative Commons

So why Tinder for agencies? At the end of the day, all good relationships are based on sex. And by sex, I mean attractiveness and desire.

It's the same in this case. Agencies need to present themselves as sexy so that clients find them attractive and desire to be in a relationship with them. Anyone who doesn't fit in that category is going to get a left swipe. However, to get a second glance, agencies have to have something beneath the surface that proves they can deliver the goods.

Agencies need to find a way to package their offerings to show that they can not only be a pretty face but also that they can think, speak, and drive their business. And this is what separates the one-night stands from the pairings at the altar.

So my recommendation for agencies? Get lean, get fit, put on your best shirt/dress, and prime your relationship skills. Stop resting on your laurels (or “daddy's” pocketbook).

As quick as the large-scale agency trend has come is how quickly it can disappear, especially with budgets and brand teams getting smaller and requiring much more support from agency partners. There may come a time in the future when the boutique agency reigns supreme for its nimbleness, creative expression, and determination. Remember: we're only as good as our last dance or night together.

Zoe Dunn is co-founder and principal of Hale Advisors.