Why soft skills can make or break client – agency relationships

As agency search consultants, we’ve seen many agencies deliver on functional skill sets, but fail on the soft skills – overriding their functional capabilities and ruling agencies (and clients) out of the running.

Make no mistake, soft skills pack a punch with marketers when agencies are being evaluated and when agencies are sizing up clients.

Wikipedia defines soft skills as follows: Soft skills complement hard skills which are the occupational requirements of a job and many other activities. They are related to feelings, emotions, insights and (some would say) an ‘inner knowing’: i.e. they provide an important complement to ‘hard skills’ and IQ.

When preparing for sizing up agencies (or clients), it’s relatively straightforward to establish a framework of requirements – whether that’s around business expertise, specific capabilities or perhaps technical knowledge. But soft skills aren’t so easy to define and quantify because they require marketers and agencies to really understand themselves, and what attributes enhance their unique business environments.

While soft skills are different for all marketers, here are ten of the most common attributes that can make the difference – even when functional capabilities are there, but the chemistry doesn’t seem quite right:

Innovation

As the marketing ecosystem has become more complex, innovation has steadily risen in importance for marketers when they’re choosing an agency. The caution here is that “innovation” isn’t just another word for “creativity”.  Innovation can take any number of forms – but it’s most often quantified around the strategic thought process and how insights are extracted.

Collaboration

Again, the complexity of the marketing ecosystem has spurned a growing requirement for multiple agencies to perform specialized roles.  Agencies that can’t demonstrate an ability to collaborate and play nice in the marketing sandbox are often ruled out faster. Likewise, if marketing teams aren’t collaborative and don’t work well with outside resources, chances are the relationship won’t ever reach its true potential.

Neutrality

Yup. It’s that complexity issue again. Now more than ever, marketers are looking for objectivity in their media mix modelling as ecosystems expand.  Agencies that default to broadcast positions, or aren’t open to other agency partners leading a campaign launch, are often less appealing than those that demonstrate real neutrality in their approaches.

Business knowledge

Business or industry knowledge gives marketers comfort they have a true business partner at the table.  The more agencies can demonstrate business knowledge with clients – the more affinity marketers tend to have with the agency they’re working with or reviewing.

Accepting criticism

We’ve seen marketers test criticism in agency pitch situations because they want to understand how easy agencies are to work with. This absolutely does not mean marketers are looking for agencies to roll over and agree with whatever’s being said – but it does require a balance between confidence in a point of view and taking input and criticism constructively. Similarly, agencies want to work with clients who are open to input and feedback as a way to enhancing the relationship or opening roads to new possibilities and solutions.

Flexibility

Guess what… plans change on a dime all the time. Any agency that can demonstrate the flexibility and ability to adapt is appealing because it means the agency isn’t weighed down by rigid process that can’t flex when marketers have earthquakes.  (And they do). Marketers have to be equally flexible to adapt to changing market conditions or better ideas that surface out of the blue.

Problem solving

Problem solving abilities are typically appealing because problems – whether strategic, creative or operational – are part of everyday marketing life. The faster agencies can demonstrate an ability to problem solve – outside a rigid process – the more appealing this attribute becomes.

Curiosity

Curiosity is a hallmark of an ability to problem solve, provide insight and an important edge over competitive agencies. An agency that is naturally curious about a marketer’s business is typically more appealing than one that is just functionally proficient.

Working under pressure

Whether it’s a last minute change of plans, high table stakes or virtually no time, working under pressure is a normal occurrence in marketing. So how the agency team can handle and deliver under pressure is a reassuring attribute that can set agencies apart.

Embracing change

An agency that demonstrates an ability to adapt and embrace change can give marketers confidence any given agency is the right choice for the long-term. And mid to long-term agency choices are generally more appealing than short-term quick fix solutions.

These are some top soft skills that we’ve seen make a difference in some of the client / agency relationships we’ve helped grow. And the more marketers can be aware of their own organizations and what soft skills are really important, the better the long term fit with your current and future agencies of choice.

So, what soft skills are important in your organization? And how adept is your team at recognizing them?

STEPHAN ARGENT

Stephan Argent is Founder and Principal at Listenmore Inc offering confidential advisory to marketers looking for truly independent insight and advice they can’t find anywhere else. Read more like this on our blog Marketing Unscrewed / follow me @StephanArgent

Photo: Steph

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