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Updated: Oct 5, 2020

by Dan La Russo Group Managing Director, Ogilvy California

If you are in-house, how often have you said, “I don’t want a vendor; I want a partner?” If you’re at an agency, how often have you said, “We’re not a vendor; we’re a partner.” Most experienced marketing leaders have heard or said both over their careers.

So it wasn’t a huge surprise when the nature and quality of partnership emerged as a common theme with marketing and business leaders in our discussions. Some of what these leaders shared seems more pertinent today than it did pre-COVID-19. Particularly because the disruptions we’re navigating now are triggering many organizations to assess their most foundational practices. Who they partner with is definitely one of them.

We heard a lot from our participants on the fundamentals of great partnerships. All the things you’d expect from a best practices book on the topic: building trust, creating a shared vision, keeping each other honest, pushing one another, and so forth.

But before exploring partnerships, it’s important to think about why they can make or break marketing engagements. Partnership is about building and exchanging value better and faster   by augmenting what we can accomplish on our own. The agency can’t do it without the client, and the client can’t deliver in the same way without the resources of the agency.

Ultimately, a strong partnership complements both sides by combining unique resources: skill sets, perspectives, geographic reach, time, talent, support, and more. Finding the right mix is often something that isn’t spoken about upfront directly or as clearly as it oftentimes should be. Here’s what our participants shared with us about the way a strong partnership shows up best for them.

Keep me focused on the outcomes

The leaders we spoke with wanted partners to have expectations of them. One leader stated, “I need a partner to call out when we’ve lost sight of the ‘so what?’ And one that will be confident enough to tell us what to do about it.” With the increased workloads and daily demands of the job, it is important that an agency partner pause, reflect, and engage in a dialogue when they see the work straying from the larger business outcome and brand objective.

Change management is everyone’s job

Even before COVID-19, when we had these discussions, multiple leaders indicated they were looking to their partners to help guide them through internal change as well as the rapidly changing external market. One leader mentioned they wanted their partners to “Help me navigate the world that is always changing — and help me bring that change to life.” We can’t think of one client today that isn’t undergoing immense change internally, externally, or both. Being there to help them understand, navigate, and manage that change is of critical importance to all of us.

You can’t fake enthusiasm and commitment

Leaders are busier than ever, weighed down by the added workload and stress that has come with this new normal. They can tell when their partners aren’t passionate about their business. Passion and enthusiasm manifest themselves as dedication, going beyond what’s expected, thinking ahead, and bringing personal investment to the job. Don’t we all want to work with partners like that? If you’re not seeing it from your partners, you’re not wrong to believe it should feel much different. Tell them what you expect, and ask what’s holding them back. Honest feedback and open dialogue about how to solve it goes a long way.

Acknowledge — and use — my expertise

One leader summed this up nicely, “Remember that I actually know some stuff. It’s not that I lack the skill to do it — I don’t have the time.” So while partners challenge each other and help each other get out of their comfort zones and think fresh — they should do it in a way that respects what both parties bring to the table. Several leaders mentioned wanting to be a part of the iteration and exploration of new thinking and new ideas, not on the sidelines waiting for a big unveil. Make it clear to your partners that you want to roll up your sleeves with them — but remember: If you’re short on time, take care not to weave yourself in so tightly that your time limitations create bottlenecks.

We’re proud to work with some of the world’s most admired brands, helping them seize today and lead the world into tomorrow. Need help with your business transformation? We’re here.

  1. Kantar Consulting: Purpose 2020: Igniting Purpose-Led Growth, May 19, 2018

  2. Kantar Consulting, Purpose 2020: Igniting Purpose-Led Growth, May 19, 2018.

  3. Harvard Business Review, “Put Purpose at the Core of Your Strategy,” Thomas W. Malnight, Ivy Buche and Charles Dhanaraj,September–October 2019,

  4. Harvard Business Review, “Digital Transformation Is Not About Technology,” Behnam Tabrizi, Ed Lam, Kirk Girard and Vernon Irvin, March 13, 2019,

  5. Prosci, Best Practices in Change Management, 2018.

  6. Prosci, Best Practices in Change Management, 2018.

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