What does partnership mean in today's business environment?

We’ve all heard it before. A service provider proclaiming that they are much more than a vendor – they are a true partner. The concept of partnership, however, has eroded into a cliché and there are myriad reasons why.

The truth is that partnership is aspirational and it necessitates two entities who want to enter this type of relationship. This cooperative spirit is inherent in the concept and essential for it to exist. The idea of a single party stating that they partner with clients demonstrates a particular naiveté as both parties must share a common definition of partnership, value it and contribute to it on an ongoing basis.

The agency client relationship can be viewed in a number of different ways. Sometimes the agency is simply a vendor providing a service and the client is viewed as a purchasing customer. There is nothing wrong with this model. Several characteristics are in play that can contribute to a lasting relationship. The service provider providing quality product in a reliable manner in an effort to earn repeat business. In this type of relationship, the expectations are clear, involvement in the client’s business is not generally very deep, the hierarchy between client and vendor has sharp boundaries and the vendor is frequently viewed through the lens of financial value. Are prices competitive? Are our vendors providing the best services and products for the price? If they are, then the business relationship may continue. If not, then certainly there are others out there who would want the client’s business. Again, nothing wrong with this model, if it is what the client is seeking. We all must be at our best in order to deserve business.

But what about when a client seeks an agency partner. Yes, the roles of a partner and vendor are distinct. A partner must go beyond and invest in their customer’s business by sharing common objectives, by committing to understand the complexities of their markets, by contributing in a meaningful way and by forming real and deep relationships. All fine aspirations, but in order for a partnership to mature from an objective to an actuality, the structure of the relationship must be built on mutual understanding.

In partnership, the client is still the driver. No one knows their business better and no one has more at stake. The agency is still the service provider. But the hierarchal lines that are so well formed in the client-vendor relationship are much more faint. Partly because the agency has proven that it can add value and perspective and partly because the client desires this type of relationship. It actually goes far beyond desire, because in order for true partnership with an agency to exist, the client must enable it to occur. This is done through a combination of actions and words. And it should only happen when the agency has demonstrated that it is worthy of this type of commitment and can continually add value. The value may take many forms. Strategy, writing, design, programming, service and support – these are the basics. Real value is achieved through trust, collaboration, chemistry and commitment. The very same characteristics that the client hopes to earn through their brands with their customers. These attributes are unobtainable without both parties not only wanting them, but working toward them every day.

Agencies who partner with clients take ownership not only of their client relationships, but also of the brands that they are entrusted with. This is multidimensional. It means sharing the client’s passion to make a difference. It means contributing to relationships with practitioner, patients and families. It means staying intimately connected to disease states and patient journeys. It means celebrating success and working through hardship. In these situations, the brand becomes a unifier between client, customer and agency. All are aware of the brand’s strengths and weaknesses, and all are deeply committed to its success.

So why is partnership, actual partnership, not more commonplace in today’s business community? Part of the answer lies in the surface only commitments being made by all parties. Part of the answer lies in the fact that there are many talented agencies who can all offer service and product that can move markets and contribute to the bottom line. Ironically, this sets the stage for the very thing brand champions hope to avoid, change and abandonment of brand loyalty. Changing channels has never been easier. Finding what you are looking for, however, remains a greater challenge.

The other reason why true partnership may be less common than one might think is because it is not easy. It requires rolling up sleeves and collaborating – not driven by a client-agency hierarchy, but advanced by common objectives and a shared passion to make a difference in the lives of patients. It requires establishing mutual trust and respect. Partnership flourishes when partners know how to motivate each other and thrive on solving challenges and exceeding expectations. Partnership is the marathon, not the sprint.

If partnership is what is being offered or sought, it is imperative to be introspective first to make sure that both parties are prepared to enable each to succeed. There’s nothing wrong with either the vendor or partnership model. It’s just that they are very different and operate under entirely separate rules. Understanding the structure and parameters of a relationship will allow clients and agencies the clarity necessary to meet or even soar beyond expectations. Together.

by Jonathan D. Katz