Relationships aren’t easy – between brands and agencies as well as in life. This is especially true once you get past the honeymoon stage; that time when you both still believed that anything is possible.

In agencies it’s easy to be distracted by the potential of your latest brand-crush to change your life for the better. But pitching is hard. It’s expensive, resource-consuming and, these days, more and more competitive.

We asked some of the most respected and inspiring agency and brand leaders in the world today just what it is that makes a great brand and agency relationship last.

1. Build trust

Laura Jordan Bambach, President and CCO UK at Grey, has built a career with a focus on people and communities. In 2007, she co-founded SheSays, the organisation that educates, promotes and inspires women to take up digital creative careers. For Laura, a good agency/brand LTR really comes down to good faith: “Strong and open relationships based on trust, respect and diversity of people and thinking create the most innovative work,” she says.

It’s a praiseworthy principle, but how do you go about making that happen in practice? Bambach goes on to say that lasting trust “can only be achieved by creating a safe space for client and agency partners to be comfortable being uncomfortable.”

One industry insider who has demonstrated just how powerful the principle of pushing brands outside their comfort zone can be is Jonathan Mildenhall, Co-Founder and Chair of TwentyFirstCenturyBrand,  former CMO at AirBnB and SVP Integrated Marketing Communication and Design Excellence, Coca Cola. For Jonathan, trust is founded on fairness, creating attractive conditions for talent to arrive and thrive: “agencies need their clients to pay fairly so that agencies can recruit and retain a disproportionate share of talent”.

Trust takes a long time to build, and can be lost very quickly. That’s why Michael Olaye VP, Managing Director, R/GA, believes it’s so critical to go beyond delivering what your client is asking for today by anticipating what they might need in the future.

For Michael, “it’s about speed and being flexible and understanding challenges that today’s market brings. Not to be reactive but to be proactive. It’s very hard to build a brand. It’s very easy to damage it today”.

2. Adapt and grow

Moving fast means not just being agile in response to a client’s needs, but being ahead of the changing world of technology, too. Brand and marketing is increasingly a function of the whole organisation, not simply a bolt-on, which means that to maintain a relationship long-term, brands and agencies must be prepared to learn and grow together.

It’s a principle Peter Soer, executive coach and a former VP Marketing at Kellogg’s Europe, supports wholeheartedly. To stay relevant, he believes you have to “enable the marketing team to own the end-to-end customer experience within their organisation – to do that, they need to be excellent with data & technology, now”.

But for Soer, there are watch outs – he says it’s critical to “harness the exploding world of digital possibility, but prevent the CMO from disappearing into ridiculous hype rabbit holes e.g. in the last 5 years, augmented reality or voice activation”.

Olaye concurs, which is why he believes a digitally-fluent partner (or range of partners) is essential for a future-facing brand.

“A brand today is so many touchpoints that the experience has to match. You can’t be amazing on TV but terrible at services. You can’t be great at services but terrible at products. The ecosystem has got much more complex for brands and they need agencies like R/GA to help navigate that”, he argues.

It’s a perspective that certainly resonates with Peter Soer from his years steering multiple brands to success in multiple markets in the fast-moving world of FMCG: “with the proliferation of assets, channels and possibility, agencies need to be able to own the answer… but they cannot be expert in all areas, so they need to be good at getting expert help and partnership from agile expert players.”

For Bambach, the extent to which these partnerships are successful depends to a large extent on respective teams on the brand and agency sides’ willingness to collaborate, particularly through technology, to find new answers: “building and maintaining strong, collaborative creative relationships in the digital age is down to the partnership we build with our clients and how collaborative we are in finding new ways and new technologies to help them resolve their business problems”.

Mildenhall agrees that it’s this combination of technology and creativity that goes to the heart of what agencies and brands can achieve together long-term. In fact he goes further, insisting that in fact we’ve moved beyond digital, into a new age of data-fueled creativity: “We are not living in the digital age, we are living in the data inspired creative age. Clients need their agencies to use data to inspire and validate investment in creative ideas that drive a disproportionate share of growth and community engagement.”

3. Destroy to create

So what of the future? The experts agree that, far from signalling a return to the status quo, the recent disruption caused by the pandemic is a signal to organisations and individuals to accelerate change.

Olawe notes that while “Covid has been a tragic thing in the world… it has helped brands to accelerate doing the things that they always knew they needed to do. A lot of internal innovation departments have used the opportunity to really drive change. “

For Soer, the future is about accelerating agility: “self organising teams, much less hierarchy, experts coming together, no internal agency silos or ‘no-go’ areas”.

Mildenhall brings it back to people: “As we come together again, agencies and brands alike should be re-doubling their efforts to create “strong environments and partnerships that allow agency people and clients to deliver the best work together.”

In the end, all strong, long-term relationships depend on the ability to respond positively to challenge and to adapt to change. In the world of brands and agencies, technology is at the heart of this capability. As Michael Olaye puts it, “When something critical happens, digital makes an elevation. Digital is a way of finding a new way to do things."