Episode 28 Transcript

How to Get Optimal Value From the Agency/Client Relationship w/ Bruno Gralpois

    Brent Trimble: Welcome to the Professional Services Pursuit, a podcast featuring expert advice and insights on the professional services industry. Again, I'm Brent Trimble and today I'm really excited about the episode we have queued up for us. Our guest is Bruno Gralpois, he has a fascinating story about his company Agency Mania Solutions, how it came about, and he is regarded as the industry expert on optimizing marketing services, creative agency, strategic services, client relationships, and how to bring these practices to life through technology. Bruno, welcome to the podcast, it's great to see you, hear you, and reconnect with you after quite some time.

    Bruno Gralpois: Bonjour Brent, great to be on the show. Thanks for having me.

    Brent Trimble: You know, I followed what you've sort of created here over 10, 15 years and the evolution of your firm culminating now with a mix of services as well as technology. But it would be great for the listeners to hear about Agency Mania, the story, and the evolution of the business is really compelling. Could you take some time and walk us through our audience, the background because your career has some formative influence there? And then ultimately, how you saw the need and started Agency Mania Solutions.

    Bruno Gralpois: Well, I'll give you a very quick overview of my background. So French born and raised, moved to the US almost 30 years ago now, and started the corporate world in Seattle. Worked for a number of software companies, lucky enough to be part of two large IPOs in Seattle. Ultimately ended up joining Microsoft in Wideman, Washington, where I spent about 10 years then worked for Visa, the payment technology company in the San Francisco Bay Area. And at Microsoft, I was lucky enough to lead a company-wide initiative. I work in the central marketing group and that initiative was really intended to reduce the number of strategy agencies that the company was using at the time. So they had a much better organized way to go to market. And after these year-long projects, which led to a more refined, more strategically sound set of agency partners, I was asked to lead the creation of a new function within the company.

    At the time we were referred to agency management, it's now commonly known as agency relations, in some organizations it’s marketing procurement, depending on which side of the fence you may find yourself. And I built the team on a global scale servicing all P&Ls of the company, which were about seven at the time. I decided to go into the marketplace and research, all the companies were doing it and it was a fascinating process. I ended up talking to many really talented individuals, and amazing organizations. They've been doing this for a long time, especially the CPGs, the consumer packaged goods companies. We've been working with agencies hands-on for years. And during that process, learn again that there was so much know-how in a marketplace that was unfortunately not easily obtainable. And that's the reason that led me to actually conduct many of these interviews.

    And it led me to write a book called Agency Mania when I was at Microsoft that came out in 2010. And it was great because it is a collection of best practices, the book did fairly well, got [inaudible 3:35] in multiple languages. It became the guidepost for how you build really strong client-agency relationships. And it also became very clear that companies were looking for more than just best practices, they were looking for ways to bring them to life in the organization. And the way by which it was gonna happen was actually consoling two of my passions, which were the client-agent team relationship and partnership enablement and my love for software, which is where I spend the majority of my career. I ended up creating Agency Mania Solutions, which we named after the book with two other industry veterans: Shaun Wolfe and Teri Wiegman, which are my partners. And we form, which is now industry-leading customizable SaaS agency management software solutions for advertisers, typically large ones looking for marketing partnership automation. And that's what led us to Agency Mania Solutions. As it stands today, we're almost 10 years into it, we started initially with a heavy focus on services supported by software and eventually became a full-play software company.

    Brent Trimble: That's a great summary and I want to dive in a little bit and hear your perspective on when that moment of providing expertise, organization, team structure in harmonizing this brand or client and agency relationship. But before I do that, maybe for our listeners to understand it, a lot of our listeners are gonna be on that agency side, marketing side, services side. And it struck me following your career and then the volume of thought leadership you put into the market and your voice is very respected, the benefits of a great relationship between brand and agency. I mean that harmonization we hear a lot and a lot of our listeners just talk about challenges with procurement and of course pricing models and the mechanics. But beyond that, and when there's a well-honed structure that governs the relationship, both sides can really benefit. Maybe touch on that a little bit.

    Bruno Gralpois: As you mentioned, there's a human element to partnership, which inherently we understand from having partnerships of all different kinds in our lives. Professional partnerships do require a certain level of structure and rigor so that you can actually realize the most value from it. And one of them that I'm actually quite passionate about is this clarity of goals and purpose. I think that when partnerships form and deliver on their utmost value, it comes from having clarity of goal and alignment of goal and a joint purpose. And that oftentimes requires obviously a subtle level of transparency and open communication and so on, but it also requires an organized framework that provides the foundation from the partnership that may include, for example, just having, again, what goals are we trying to accomplish in an organization. Are we gonna measure our success? Do we have the right KPIs or key performance indicators in place to measure and optimize the relationship?

    Another one that's actually came to be interesting to me over the years and we've actually helped companies build is partnership principles. And it's really the articulation of how the relationship is gonna be governed to your point, what are the guardrails and the rules by which the relationship will be managed. And what's interesting is that when you have, you mentioned agencies, agencies are fascinating organizations, very unique culture. And when you talk to large brands, they also have established over the years very specific and evolving cultures. And sometimes it's a clash of cultures, you're blending two cultures. You may be aligned on objectives, you may share the common goal. Often time for an agency, it's saying hey, we aspire to what the company is trying to accomplish. We embrace their mission and their vision. We want to be part of it, we want to be enabling them to be successful in the marketplace. That's very empowering, very exciting, but sometimes cultures get in the way.

    So the partnership principles are also trying to minimize the cultural clash that may take place from typically large organizations that are very structured as we all can appreciate where agencies can be very agile and very fluid. And so that alone can sometimes create tension and friction that you need to address. So the partnership principles really aimed at reducing that friction and making sure that those cultures are compatible, although they may be different and everybody's working towards common goals.

    Brent Trimble: Compatible but different. I think that's a key point because ultimately the client, the brand and you noted some of the brands you worked on in your formative years. And then of course in your practice in Agency Mania, many global brands don't necessarily want a culture that looks exactly like them, right? Because you need the creativity and the nimbleness, but compatible; compatibility is key. So you started the firm and the book had tremendous success, continues to be a great resource and at some point matching that passion of technology with the expertise. Give us a little bit of some insight on what was that inflection point when you decided this could be a great software platform to enable brands and their agency partners.

    Bruno Gralpois: Well, there were a couple of inflection points I would say that were really contributing factors if you will. First, starting in the professional services, you learn a lot from it, especially if it's part of your core offering. And the reason for that is because it's highly consultative. You need to go deep, you need to understand the drivers behind the business and that organization. And even today as a software company, we tend to be very consultative, that's why we do custom software. We still maintain that with a process that we call provisioning where we have a PRD or product requirements document and we have these rich interactions and discussions where we document the needs of every client. Again, because we do custom software, we adapt to our client business because we believe that it's better than having them adapt to our software, which is where we do custom in the first place.

    And our clients include some of the largest brands in the world, as you mentioned, like companies like American Express and Toyota and Dell and IBM and Nestle, just large global organizations. And they all share similar challenges, which are, to your point, inflection points that led to thinking about how to create a company and what to offer in the marketplace. One was then complexity. Because we deal with very large companies, they all naturally have organizational complexity. They're multi-brand, they're global companies, they emerge, and acquire other entities. It's constant change, but complexity is just an inherent part of their company, to their fabric because they're so big, right? So there's a desire to simplify, how do you simplify how the organizations collaborate? How workflows happen, how can we simplify how the work ultimately flows through the organization and get things done.

    There is also a cost of complexity and the cost of complexity is really waste. There's also a desire equally to look for ways to minimize waste. And the waste comes in a lot of different flavors as you know, it could come from just misalignment of expectations. It can come from people spending time on things they shouldn't be doing in the first place, whether it's on the agency side, which ends up being an expense for the client. Excessive agency fees, maybe excessive overhead or can take place on the client side. People again do things and tasks that really are not needed for them to do. And so you want to remove the waste, which is another inflection point that we saw in the marketplace.

    The third one was really about the fact that a cost function, companies have been moving away from very manual labor-intensive processes to automating functions. So it's not just happening in marketing or professional services or the agency world, it happens in HR in every part of the entire ecosystem if you will. So how do we go and start automating common tasks and activities and removing a lot of the inherent inefficiencies and waste, again, that takes place from manual processes. So that was another inflection point that we saw in the marketplace.

    Then the last one is, there was also a desire to rely on adequate actionable insight. For a while you may recall for years people were talking about big data and then we realized nobody wants big data, we want smart data. And smart data is less about data actually, it's about insight, insight that is generally from data that allow you to make informed decisions in a timely manner and have sustainable impact. And so that was another inflection point, if you will, another driver in the marketplace. There was a desire to equip people with information that could enable them to do a better job. And in a client-agency relationship, that means equipping marketing stakeholders and procurement stakeholders with information they can use at their fingertips that make them just better partners to the agencies. Allow the agencies to do better work and be better collaborators across the board.

    Brent Trimble: No, those are really great points. I think the notion of benefiting both parties in that process and in that partnership. And the notion I think of eliminating waste and then gaining data and smart insights, I think is very relevant. Given the amount of press devoted to the topic over the past decade or so of the agency model, talent dynamics, I look at it as a very resilient and always evolving and adapting kind of space. But that enduring need of highly talented people delivering innovative and creative solutions of all types to global brands in our side and in our listening audience. And then of course our customer base and beyond. We've got shops that are probably in a very ascendant phase, maybe still in that kind of boutique, very specialized all the way up to holding company brands that are doing global delivery at scale for innovations. But they, I think, could always benefit from your advice and the insight from the strategic solutions you deploy on the client side. What are some of the really big topics right now where you're counseling your brands that you think would be relevant, not to put you on the spot in terms of anything proprietary, but that you think would benefit a harmonious partnership. Particularly as we’re coming again, it seems like just yesterday we were talking about economic upheaval with the pandemic and now we're entering what looks like a period of economic softness. But what are some trends you're counseling your partners on at present you think would benefit the agency side of the audience?

    Bruno Gralpois: I see a couple, and as you know, it's a great passion of mine. I spend a lot of time talking to clients about that topic, you know, how we can best support them. How can they get optimal value from the agency relationships? And I worked on the agency side for a while, so I was privileged enough to understand that viewpoint as well because in any partnership, it takes two to tango. You do need to have that acute understanding of their operatic model, the way they organize themselves, the way they operate to be the best client possible. But in terms of trends or perhaps topics that are coming to the top, as you know, in all discussions with clients, one of the most critical one I think is guidance. The desire by brands and clients to improve the way they guide their agency partners.

    And there are two ways by which that comes to life, one is through planning. So most organizations go through these annual planning processes on a fiscal calendar basis. They’re aligned on their goals and they set budgets and then they need to articulate what they are gonna do in the marketplace to deliver on those objectives? And we refer to it as a scope of work in the client-agency relationship typically, scope of work process, if you will. And there is an organized approach to collaborate with agencies to say, here's what we're gonna do, here's how we're gonna go about doing it. And the client can do that on their own, they have to involve the agencies because agencies may articulate with great precision how the work is gonna happen. What specifically is gonna need to be done to support those objectives. So the client can set big priorities and that's where the guidance comes in. A good client can be providing that overall guidance so that the agencies can start laying up plans during the planning process. So that's one aspect.

    The other one is briefing and the process of briefing has been discussed for years. It's been broken for years. It's fascinating to me actually that you can go to and get your MBA in a marketing space and enter the marketplace and never add much exposure on how to write an effective brief. And the briefing process is so critical to the agencies to provide them the information they need to be most effective at coming up with ideas, especially during the creative process, depending on obviously the nature of the work, so briefing is very critical. And when I was at Microsoft, we actually conducted a very large audit at the time where we asked all the agencies to submit all the briefs they got from our Microsoft clients. We captured hundreds of briefs and it was fascinating to us.

    So what we did is we actually started rating the quality of the briefs, almost like we were rating papers. And we were looking for certain things: our comprehensiveness of the briefs, and what level of details are provided. Are they being provided specific smart objectives? And we learned that there was obviously, as you can imagine, kind of widespread quality or cost organization. Some organizations were really provided some, sometimes no brief existed. Agencies were operating with that briefing. They were briefed over text or a phone call and the agencies who were tasked to capture notes and there was no other accountability from the client perspective. So we realized, and it was estimated actually in the marketplace, that up to 30% of agency fees were wasted due to poor briefing. Too many rounds of revisions of the brief process, too many rounds of revision of creative and just because obviously once you don't have the adequate briefing, you're more likely to miss the mark and you have to go and do this again and so on.

    So it's one great opportunity for wasted efficiencies, and I think one that's very important and clients are taking on. The other one is improving feedback. Creating a culture of mutual accountability is important. And agencies can only do so well and until they're being provided good feedback, productive feedback that allows them to cost correct. And again, be the best partner they can be to the organization they serve. That means having tangible KPIs, we talked about this earlier. It also means for many of our clients, assessing the relationship at least twice a year, usually with a media touch point and then a year and comprehensive structured feedback process. That's 360 by the way. So that the agencies have a voice in how the client can sometimes, without knowing it, create situations that hinder their ability to be productive in servicing the clients. And the client sometimes don't realize that they are the source of a particular issue, and it happens very often. So it's very important to make these 360 and have this holistic viewpoint so the client can also learn how they can be better partners, not only how can the agency learn to be better suppliers or partners to them.

    The last one will be around innovation, not a topic that clients are keen to figure out, which is how do you encourage innovation, constant innovation? By taking measurable risk and pushing agencies to deliver work that's gonna be challenging to them. And we talked about the compatibility culture earlier, but you expect your agencies to be thought-provoking. If you always agree with your agency or the agency agrees with you, you're probably not getting the type of creative out-of-the-box thinking you should get. That's a little disruptive, that really forces you out of your comfort zone to explore new ways of expressing yourself in a marketplace. And that's where I think you see brand ideas emerge in the marketplace. It comes through this very innovative risk taking approach that has to be, again, structured. One of the examples by which we can structure that is we have had many clients who identify innovation as a KPI and they ask the agency to perform against a KPI and they measure that. Another one is we have clients who've set up innovation forms where they invite their agencies to come in, present to their leadership team ideas that are totally outside the box on a particular topic. And see how created those agencies can be outside of the typical, here's an assignment, here's a brief, here's a project for you to do. Let's give you some room to think outside the box, really step back and think about how you can be growth agents for us. How can you really propel a business forward? By giving us ideas that are truly innovative. So those will be some of the key topics I think that are just top of mind I think for clients.

    Brent Trimble: Those are excellent. You discussed the need for comprehensive planning beyond simply just fiscal and allotment and assignment of resourcing for the year. Briefing, articulating objectives in a succinct fashion. And I think, we're recording this here in October and I can hear my headphones, this future cheering of heads of strategy in tons of our agencies kind of imagining the thought of their clients actually being scored on the quality of their brief. But that's a really compelling point because the quality of that brief then conversely is either accelerated or diluted based on that agency planning and strategist motion, right? And if they get terrible fragments of information that are clear, then how can you expect compelling work, a culture of 365 feedback that goes both ways, to your point about good partnership dynamics and then innovations.

    So great, I think, bidirectional concepts for our partners that can take in really good practical fundamentals, so thank you for that. So as we start to wrap here, your firm releases and it's one of the really compelling, I think, sought-after pieces of thought leadership in the market, but you regularly release industry trends and topics around things like talent and innovation. How would a client or agency in our listening audience be able to subscribe to those? What's the best method for that?

    Bruno Gralpois: So we do release what we call an industry update every six to eight weeks. And it's a very comprehensive compilation of anything that's going on in our industry, to your point, around talent, the work agency reviews, M&A, just new agencies, new capabilities. And we make this available for people to subscribe, and you can easily do so by going to agencymania.com and there's a resources section and industry update section and you can easily sign up and get these delivered to your inbox.

    Brent Trimble: That's outstanding, and we'll repeat that at the conclusion here, but this has been great. It's been great to get reacquainted. I know you and I go back quite some time, a couple of trips to different continents and so forth. Thank you so much for coming on the show. We endeavor to give our listeners practical insights that they can gather in the four quadrants of planning, briefing, feedback, and innovation in addition to the thought leadership that they can glean, I think is gonna be fantastic. But as another value add for our listeners, we're gonna do a giveaway of Bruno's Book Agency Mania to the first three listeners that email us at podcast@kantata.com. Simply shoot us an email and if you're one of the first three, we'll reach out and give you a copy. This is one of the first book giveaways we've done here, but I've read the book, it's fantastic. I think wherever you are in that relationship dynamic, whether you're on the services side, whether you're on the client side. And again, thank you so much for joining us. First three listeners, podcast@kantata and request Bruno's book and sign up for those industry insights at Agency Mania. Bruno, thanks again and it's been a pleasure having you on.

    Bruno Gralpois: The pleasure is all mine. Merci Brent.

    Brent Trimble: If you enjoyed this podcast, let us know by giving the show a five-star review on your favorite podcast platform and leaving a comment. If you haven't already subscribed to the show, you can do so anywhere you get podcasts on any podcast app. And to learn more about the power of Kantata's purpose-built technology, go to Kantata.com. Thanks again for listening.