Audi and Venables Bell Share 5 Tips to Make Agency-Client Relationships Last

The duo celebrated a decade together in 2017

Here's how Audi and Venables Bell & Partners have stayed together for a decade.
Getty Images

The long-standing agency of record relationships may seem to be more and more of a rarity, but you’ll still find a handful of long-term relationships that are going strong.

Take Audi and Venables Bell & Partners, for example. The duo started working together in 2006 and in the last 10 years have continued to produce inspiring creative in major marketing arenas like the Super Bowl—this February Audi and VB&P made a bold statement with an ad tackling the gender pay gap by telling the story of a father and his daughter—and in its day-to-day marketing efforts.

At Advertising Week New York this week, Loren Angelo, VP, marketing for Audi of America and Paul Birks-Hay, partner and president at Venables Bell & Partners, took the stage to talk about how they’ve managed to keep their relationship alive and thriving for over a decade now. Here are some of their key takeaways.

When VB&P was pitching for the Audi business in 2006, the agency was up against some tough competition including the incumbent and two other agencies with auto and luxury experience (VB&P at the time had neither). So what did it take for a rookie shop to win the account?

Honesty.

“If you look at the honesty you have to express in any relationship, it can sometimes be a little hurtful and maybe a little surprising, and it was that thing that put Venables Bell & Partners on the map and our radar screen because they came with this real truth and the real truth was America was a little different,” Angelo said.

The challenge at the time was that Audi was looking to build its market share in the states. The German car company was thriving in its homeland but in the U.S. no one was looking at Audi as a progressive luxury car brand.

So when VB&P went to pitch the brand, the agency got pretty real. VB&P creatives made a film that basically told the German brand that in the U.S., Audi’s oversees success and innovation was meaningless. The brand needed to adapt its messaging for an American audience and VB&P would help them do that.

“What we didn’t know was Audi of America were desperately looking for an opportunity to explain to their German counterparts that America was different, and that film became that,” Birks-Hay said. “It went around the halls of Audi Germany and became the things that set the table for the types of marketing Audi would do in America.”

Once Audi took a big risk hiring VB&P, the duo needed to now take some risks together to build the Audi brand and gain consumer awareness in America.

“Audi wasn’t really considered a luxury brand in the same way Mercedes was. We had to create something of seismic proportions to change the conversations, and the reason for that is simple,” Birks-Hay said. “The car wasn’t publicly seen as a prestigious car so we had to not just create a private desire for the car but my neighbor needed to want one, my neighbor’s neighbor needed to want one.”

That desire to get the brand in front of millions and millions of Americans led the partners to only one possibility. The 2006 Super Bowl.

“Imagine the conversation between Audi of America and Audi of Germany, which went something like, ‘So…we are going to the Super Bowl. We’re going to spend 10 percent of our entire budget in 60 seconds flat. We are going to advertise a car that we don’t need to sell and no one can afford to buy and also we are going to do it in a way that harks our wonderfully restrained sophisticated tone of voice and instead picks a fight with the most prestigious brand on the planet on the biggest stage,’” Birks-Hay added.

So yeah, the decision to run a Super Bowl spot for a luxury car in 2006 was a huge risk, but one that paid off because the partners were on the same page, from start to finish, about the tone and direction of the messaging. The first spot was such a hit that Audi has continued to make appearances in the Super Bowl, with the help from VB&P, delivering some big hits including 2017’s gender equality spot and the charming 2016 space-themed ad set to David Bowie’s “Starman.”

Having a difference of opinion on creative and marketing ideas is a major key to making the Audi, VB&P relationship last, according to both Birks-Hay and Angelo. The key is to always listen to each other and respect the other person’s idea and vision.

“It felt odd to have a meeting with [Audi] where there wasn’t a raging debate,” Birks-Hays said. “I’ve never seen one where people aren’t immediately taking positions, and that is healthy; it means that there is passion involved.”

Added Angelo: “Difference in opinion in any relationship plays such a crucial role. While risk is important, when you are taking that risk you’ve got to be able to, especially when you want to be a brand that is communicating something that people actually care about, to be able to debate it with trusted partners.”

Respecting each other also means having some tough conversations and being honest with your partner. At one point in time, Audi found that the creative work VB&P was coming up with wasn’t quite accomplishing what Audi wanted it to. That meant Angelo and his team had to be really upfront and honest with the agency, letting them know if things didn’t turn around the brand might have to go in a different direction and find another shop to work with.

“Those types of frank conversations are tough to have and the takeaway is can you step back from that conversation, assess it and say can I come up with a better solution? Is there a different path to take? And that’s what the Venables team did,” Angelo said.

If your client asks you to do something you’re maybe not used to–like testing a new social platform–Birks-Hays said you have to be open to it, always. And vice-versa. If your agency has a crazy creative idea or business idea, listen and take it into consideration.

Being open to new ideas also means that the agency should be thinking of news ways to solve a client’s problems before they even anticipate needing it. After pushing out some great creative campaigns, Audi found it needed to turn its attention away from the overall brand and toward its customers. Cars were selling at Audi dealerships, but the customer experience wasn’t quite where the brand wanted it to be.

“We were on a great track; however, we had been solving a lot of challenges and we hadn’t been focused fully on the customer experience,” Angelo said.

That led VB&P to create a new division–VBP Orange.

“They came to us with this strategic offshoot of professionals who were built into an area of their organization who had a lot of market research experience, a lot of insight into how they could help the customer, and looked at the way they could build some of those insights in with this group,” Angelo said.

Through the creation of VBP Orange, VB&P and Audi could work together to totally transform the customer experience. Taking a play from the jewelry business, VB&P recommended dealers present a customer’s brand-new car keys in a beautiful box, and when a customer came in for a test drive the keys would have a beautifully designed tag with the customer’s name on it.

“It was possibly one of the most important things we’ve done in our relationship, simply helping build this increased drivership for Audi,” Birks-Hays said.

For the past 10 years, Audi has strived to be thought of as a progressive luxury brand and with that, the car brand has entered into some important social conversations from gender equality to politics. Of course anytime a brand steps into these types of conversations, no matter how authentic it may feel, there is always going to be pushback.

With the brand’s 2017 Super Bowl ad, 70 percent of sentiment around the gender equality spot was positive, but 30 percent was negative. Audi and the agency obviously stood by the work even as it picked up some bad feedback, but it was important that no one pointed fingers when things went wrong and instead that both sides stood together.

Added Angelo: “In the end, these are things that have led to a decade of work together that has not only transformed the Audi brand and the way that consumers see us, but really the way the world sees us.”