How to build healthy partnerships

One of the challenges facing media companies today is the difficulty of building and maintaining a sustainable business while working with clients who are continuously looking for lower rates and increased performance at the same time. In many cases for direct-sold campaigns, while the senior level kickoff meeting is full of smiles and back slaps, the relationship between the front-line managers and executors on both sides turns into a combative environment devoid of ownership or accountability.

There are many reasons that this happens. Ad agencies are full of understaffed and overworked teams, which naturally leads them to offload as much work as possible to the companies they are paying for the placement of their client’s assets. With a spate of recent layoffs at major digital-only publishers, the same situation is often true at these companies. After all, its not as if the revenue goals are adjusted downward (at least not proportionally) despite the reduction in workforce. Everyone is simply expected to pick up the slack. Another reason is a lack of clear understanding on what was actually sold and/or an inability to translate this into terms that the executors can actually execute. Perhaps a conversation over beers leads to a big idea which is then turned into a media plan that doesn’t necessarily reflect something that is sellable, measurable, or scalable. In this case, internal marketing, account management and ad ops teams are left to invent solutions on the fly, begging colleagues to help them deliver the bare minimum of what was promised. Yet another possibility for why these relationships can disintegrate is a cultural lack of accountability throughout the organizations involved. When one individual or team feels like they are doing all of the hard work with no reciprocal effort, they are bound to become frustrated at minimum. When the people around them simply pass work (and responsibility) on to someone else as quickly as possible, their motivation to do their best work work evaporates.

My attitude has always been that I will not get frustrated about that which I cannot control. Additionally, I acknowledge that others may not put in the effort or quality of work that I do and that I will not slip to their level. This has served me well in these situations and I’d like to think that this thinking contributes to a culture where everyone does their best and takes ownership for everything within their domain. When companies instill this attitude in their employees, they are more likely to go the extra mile and do the right things when it counts.  

We run ad operations for publishers (and some agencies and advertisers) of all shapes and sizes, which gives us a wide view of how buyers and sellers of media work together. Regardless of the type of the relationship or deal, from long-term sponsorships to media-only direct campaigns to hybrid programmatic deals and full blown open market, the healthy partnerships are always built on a foundation of mutual respect. This must be established early on and carried through the life of the deal. The buyer should feel as if they are getting a fair return for their money and a team that will work hard on their behalf. They should believe that they are buying something of value that will drive results for their client. The seller should feel like they are working with counterparts that are not out to take advantage of them. Aligning on expectations early on is the single most critical step publishers can take to build these healthy relationships going into any campaign.

The rest is blocking and tackling, things that any high functioning organization should be able to handle with relative ease. This includes being responsive, available, thorough and transparent. Clarity in communication and eliminating middlemen is key. We often see multiple layers in place where the outcome is effectively a game of phone tag where the day-to-day contact, often an Account Manager, is simply a translator for other people within the organization who actually have answers and the context behind them. As difficult as it is, eliminating these additional layers by putting the appropriate people in touch directly typically results in a greater understanding and level of empathy on both sides. The argument against this, that the buyer needs a single point of contact for simplicity, is based on a lack of understanding of the nuances of what happens in the weeds. If the trafficker or ad ops manager has the relevant information, let them speak to the client. They must be able to develop this skillset and the client will appreciate the expertise. If the creative person needs to advise the client on an important change to a program, facilitate a direct conversation. The client will understand what is going on and the creative lead will be able to do something with the feedback that is provided.

Of course campaigns need to launch quickly, pace appropriately and deliver in full. These are tablestakes. Making proactive optimization suggestions based on agreed upon KPIs and building a compelling wrap presentation should be as well. Anyone with a desire to excel at their job will prioritize these tasks accordingly. I used to tell employees on my team that the best gauge of their professional performance in a sales-driven media organization is the level of desire (or lack thereof) that their colleagues have to work with them. Because teams are often structured into cross-functional “pods,” these feelings become very apparent when shifts in alignments happen. If someone is moved onto another team and there is major backlash, that is a good indication that that person is doing an exemplary job. On the other hand, if there is silence or even a sense of relief, it typically means that the person getting re-aligned is falling short. If organizations can develop employees that everyone is fighting over, they will be set up for long-term success.