How to Rebuild Trust in the Agency-Marketer Relationship

Focus on 3 imperatives to transform partnerships

Challenges and concerns related to trust are negatively affecting the relationship between agencies and marketers. Getty Images
Headshot of Marla Kaplowitz

“Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.” —Steven Covey

I have just reached the 90-day mark in my role leading the 4A’s, and one thing has been made exceedingly clear to me over the past few months: Before we can make true progress, we must address a critical issue. That issue is trust.

As the industry and consumer marketplace has evolved and become increasingly complex, there are challenges and concerns related to trust that are negatively affecting the relationship between agencies and marketers.

And if we don’t have trust, we can’t grow our businesses. We’re living in a world of disruption, which is either exciting or frightening depending on your perspective. However, before we talk about growth, we must address the barriers obstructing the path and the imperatives that will help us fix them.

Here are three imperatives we need to focus on:

Rebuild trust

4A’s and 4A’s members cannot achieve desired objectives and be successful in the long term until trust is re-established among agencies, advertisers, media and key industry ecosystem constituents.

I’ve been proud to be part of the advertising and communications industry for 30 years on the agency side of the business. The best experiences for me were always grounded in strong relationships partnering with clients. People are at their best and most creative when they feel trusted and valued. Trust is the cornerstone of any good relationship. We must foster it through candid collaboration and conversations.

During the past year, the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) led initiatives around media and production transparency that resulted in many marketers questioning their trust in their agency partners. And yes, in any sizable, complex marketplace there is the potential for (and likelihood that) bad actors will exploit opportunities for personal gain. We condemn any such behavior and have made it a requirement of membership that agencies abide by our Transparency Guiding Principles of Conduct. Marketers, media and ecosystem participants have analogous responsibilities to act in a fair, responsible manner.

We encourage agencies and clients to discuss trust in the context of business expectations and requirements to ensure a successful partnership. These will differ based on the needs of the participants. To ensure trust, agency-client relationships need to openly address systems, procedures, economics and stewardship in operations and contracts.

Continue partnering on industry initiatives

For years, the 4A’s, ANA and other industry leaders have partnered to co-create initiatives and task forces to benefit the industry and our members. These initiatives range from the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) and the Coalition for Better Ads (CBA) to the Trustworthy Accountability Group, or TAG, co-authoring guidelines for Agency Search and Agency Selection Briefing Guidance, 3MS and beyond. Across the board, these are important efforts aligned to our shared visions for the industry addressing a better consumer advertising experience as well as greater accountability related to the digital supply chain and measurement. Still, there’s more work to be done.

To move forward, there needs to be further collaboration on additional cross-industry initiatives, including client marketing, procurement and agencies collaborating on mutually beneficial business growth; digital media supply-chain efficiency practices and standards; education on automated media investment (targeting, buying, etc.) considerations; stewardship and auditing considerations and standards and data security.

And the only way we’ll get there is with open dialogue, which leads to the third imperative.

Keep the lines of communication open

As consultant and author Michael Farmer recently noted: “An industry at war with itself does not create much shareholder value.” There is not, and likely never will be, full alignment of interests among industry participants given different perspectives. However, while we may hold different views on some issues, we have a choice to work together to address them.

Given the interdependencies of the marketing ecosystem, constituents need to work to rebuild trust so that our industry can refocus on generating growth and building brands. This is in all of our best interest and will ultimately benefit both marketers and agencies.

Marla Kaplowitz (@meknyc) is president and CEO of the 4A’s.

@meknyc Marla Kaplowitz is the CEO of the 4As.