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  • Writer's pictureLisa Williams

Chapter 17 - Be a Partner - Understanding the Difference Between a Contract and a Partnership

As I asked questions about partnerships in digital marketing; partnerships between a brand and its' digital marketing vendors, partnerships between employees and employers, partnerships between C-Suite peers I learned there's a big difference between a contract and a partnership.

Throughout commerce history, a big part of business success relies on the quality of the relationship between a business and the services or products needed for that business that comes from other partners.

Companies like Nike, Disney and Starbucks depend on their sourcing relationships and partnerships. Those relationships can last for decades. The relationship between agency and brand last (depending on the data sources) an average of 2.4 years.

The amount of time invested in choosing a partner like a sourcing manufacturer includes due diligence, on site interviews, cross-team buy in and other fail safes. When agencies are a revolving door of talent, that's a whole other level of loss. It has big impact on the ability to effectively partner.

Daina Middleton, past CEO of Performics and a Senior Director at Twitter, shares that "Brands need to treat an agency as a vendor versus a partner. Agencies thrive on being a client partner dedicated to solving a business challenge. Brands who treat agencies poorly or subserviently often get a poor reputation that causes a ripple effect. Agencies can't hire or retain top talent to service the business and the brands subsequently don't get quality work. Bottom line, if a brand has a person he or she can trust, that trumps any superior technology, method, or process," says Middleton.

The partnership often starts not with a contract, but with the pitching process. In an effort to better understand what makes for a winning business development pitch I interviewed several executive leaders responsible for growing business for their agencies. What I learned was much of the "for the win" attributes were about cohesiveness of the group, clarity of messaging, connection as a pitching team and clear pricing structure. The soft skills inherent in a winning pitch team were just as much about the service offering and how that aligned with the business problem.

Business development pitches are where the relationship begins. A great BD pitch is art and science. It's part research and part storytelling. Chemistry of the team is just as important as clarity on the pricing model and financials. Understanding not just the business needs, but the social styles and pain points of each of the decision makers is imperative. Mapping agency or consultant strengths to business problems can also include showing where you're not a good fit. If there's a huge need for persona creation or customer segmentation and that's not your sweet spot, being honest and proposing other partners can seem counter intuitive to the objective but it can be a strong signal that you care as much about the success and overarching business needs as you do your own bottom line.

Part of the reason an agency or vendor doesn't get selected is often that they didn't solve the business problem. If the pitch team isn't credible or it's disjointed that doesn't inspire confidence in service offering. If the proposed solution seemed “generic” rather than specific it's unlikely to be won.

Brands, rightly so, leverage the pitch process as an opportunity to understand the qualities of the vendor. If the pitch team has misunderstood the ask or it's not clear who's going to do what in the pitch and in the engagement, that's a red flag.

Every step in the partnership process should be devoted to establishing the tenor, quality and expectations of the relationship.

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