Empathy isn’t a word necessarily associated with the world of business. Meaning to understand, be aware of, and to be sensitive to the feelings and experiences of others, it’s mostly considered in terms of personal interactions. But it’s a crucial aspect of business relations too – and never more so than during the past 18 months.

All of us have gone through extraordinary stresses and strains as we’ve had to adapt our businesses, our working lives, the way we communicate and how we handle our professional dealings under the adverse conditions of the Covid-19 pandemic. Being sensitive to our agency partners’ situations and specific pressures has never been more vital to maintaining good working relationships.

Now, as the world edges toward returning to normal, many advertisers will want to raise their profiles and jump in with big plans and campaigns to make a splash. After a period of such financial pressure and stress, improving return on investment of their – often increased – marketing budgets will be front of mind for many marketers.

This puts marketing procurement centre stage – and defining what good governance and stewardship looks like will make it easier for advertisers to thrive in the new business climate. That involves building solid partnerships that benefit both parties – and that is where recognising the need for empathy in client agency relationships is particularly paramount. It is by being empathetic that trust and genuine partnerships can best be nurtured, and we have seen that evolve over the past period of crisis.

For many working in marketing services, one of the enduring benefits of the pandemic was the collective, collaborative approach of seeing the world from other people’s perspective. We were all in it together – in a way that we’ve never been before – as carefully-constructed media and marketing plans were forced to change. Advertisers and agencies, finance and media, marketing and procurement were all faced with the choice of working solely in their own organization’s, or department’s, best interests, or to choose to work together in partnership to make the best of the bad situation.

I’d say, in the main, advertisers and their agencies have worked in partnership to strengthen their relationships under Covid. Those agency relationships are likely to continue to prosper going forward. Marketing procurement success has been achieved by putting the dynamics of relationships first.  

A lack of trust can lead to advertisers looking to change agencies – which can be a complex and costly affair. Far better, to establish good contracts that mean all parties understand exactly what is expected of each other. Then contract compliance can be monitored with regular auditing – and this ensures that as people working within teams on both sides change, a continuity is achieved.  

The turnover of staff in both advertisers and agencies can be high – a typical tenure is only 18 months in a role – which can have a significant impact on institutional memory. It makes for a dynamic, creative working environment but it can also lead to a lack of continuity and understanding of established protocols or working practices.

Because brands invest most of their marketing spend on advertising – and the majority of that on media – good governance in media was the focus of the Association of National Advertisers (ANA)’s report into US media market transparency in 2016. We helped write the recommendations within this report and while many big advertisers have taken some action in this area in the five years since, there is still much work to be done.

But the pandemic has forced a hard reset on all advertisers and brands should seize the spirit of empathetic advertiser-agency collaboration to improve governance across the board – and not just where media is concerned. The marketing mix invariably involves spend in social media, sponsorship, PR, direct marketing and events and the same governance and contract compliance should be applied to the agency agreements in these areas of marketing services. For consumer brands, shopper marketing and in-store promotion can command most of all marketing spend – sometimes 80% or more – and the same rigour should be applied here.

When the contract is clear and all parties have got an empathetic working relationship, the detail is covered, meaning all the energy can be fed into the creative process to focus on the best campaign to deliver the best ROI.

With an established process of checking and auditing contracts, agency and client teams are crystal clear of what’s expected of them. This isn’t about penny-pinching and trying to catch out agencies, it’s good governance for the whole marketing procurement process. Good governance helps to strengthen these relationships by providing a safety net for both parties to trust each other. This limits the ‘downside’ of trust and makes it essential for agencies and clients to “trust but verify”. When you combine empathy with this trust, businesses can maintain a great relationship and focus their efforts on marketing and advertising, rather than implementing controls.