Media Planning & Buying

Vendors or Partners? A New Approach to Agency Relationships

July 7, 2014

As the digital landscape has evolved and publishers and platforms have proliferated, we (agency folks) have picked up a bad habit – and that’s using the V-word: “vendors.”

During my tenure in media, I’ve worked across search, performance display and social. In all of these arenas, the term “vendor” was used to describe the publishers, platforms and other companies that we’ve partnered with to help clients meet their objectives. In the cases of those trusted allies, this term – simply defined as “one who sells” – is limiting and inaccurate.

Finding the right partner is a sophisticated process. In fact, my colleague likened it to “media dating” in a previous blog post. Building off those thoughts, the true partnership required to make any collaboration work goes far beyond a designated seller-buyer dynamic. This is especially true in digital, where things move and change quickly, and strength of relationship can make or break a campaign in the heat of the moment.

For these reasons, “vendor” is a misnomer; “partner” is more accurate. This post will explain how 360i approaches our relationships and how we build and maintain the trusted partnerships needed to help our clients achieve their business objectives.

Getting Past the V-Word

So, it’s pretty clear that I am not a fan of the word “vendor” – and as a policy, 360i has done away with the term for quite some time, as well. Not surprisingly, our partners don’t like the term either. “Vendor” carries a stigma, and first impressions can go both ways.

To help you kick the habit, try to refer to a “vendor” by their name, as a representative or a potential partner. I’ve always stressed to teams, especially to more junior members, to refrain from calling warm-blooded humans and the companies they work for “vendors.”  When creating new partnerships, it’s far easier to inspire a team by referring to a partner in that light, as opposed to lumping them into the one-dimensional “seller” bucket.

Removing “vendor” from your vernacular is the first step to help support a truer collaborative perception of your team, agency or brand. While this topic is critical for new partnerships, it’s just as or more important for lasting partnerships. Price negotiations, value adds, creative support, Beta inclusions and the like are important to help give your clients an edge – and a great relationship will help facilitate these hurdles and opportunities along the way.

Tapping into the Value of a True “Partner”

Agency partners offer much more value than their ability to provide meals, offer gifts and pitch you products. They are experts at navigating their own organizations, well-connected conduits to the resources and people you need to talk to – especially engineering, product, analytics, creative support and decision-makers like yield management and executives. If you acknowledge this as true, and realize that their goals often align with yours (and your clients’), you’ll be successful.

Communication is essential when it comes to reducing instances of false expectations, which can lead to wasted resource hours and other inefficiencies. Many partners have expertise across a number of platforms/publishers and verticals – so consider tapping into their deep and broad knowledge to pull out information that will help your needs. I implore you to invite them into the brainstorming process, ask them for their POV on relevant topics or inquire about other potential partners beyond what they sell. Some of the best insights I have gained have come from seasoned partners who have been able to provide additional context and a fresh perspective. That experience runs the gamut from tactical campaign executions to complex media strategies and custom tracking opportunities.

Weighing partner offerings and seeing through the short comings of complimentary products, has been met with great success and has essentially helped me to truncate my own timelines by way of pulling together resources within my best partnerships.

Building Partners into Ideation

Given the perspective and insight that trusted partners can bring to the table, consider involving your top partners in the ideation process – not afterwards. Collaborative ideation fosters a better working relationship in which partners can add to the campaign’s destiny before it has been fully defined.

Providing a forum for your best partners to help shape the future work – and giving them a chance to enlist their brightest stars to help craft it – is not a threat to your team, but rather an opportunity to help activate the best version of tactics that ladder up to a core strategy. Through this approach, you’ll be able to better discern what’s available today (and what’s plausible tomorrow), and vet through opportunity and resource costs as well as brain capital early in the ideation process.

Moving Forward: Meeting New Matches

Long-term partnerships are highly valuable – and to develop them, many agencies like 360i have been working with a core group of platforms and publishers for the better part of a decade. These relationships are also critical – especially when it comes to the partners that play leading roles in clients’ digital strategies. Maintaining strong relationships with long-term partners should be a priority for your team.

Yet digital is an emerging space. There are constantly new offerings and new potential partners that have the potential to hold tremendous value for your clients. For this reason, networking and education are critical to remain on the pulse and in-the-know. Do not ignore the power of the introduction. Curiosity – one of the staple characteristics of 360i – is also critical to unearthing new opportunities for your clients. Having inquisitive and passionate minds on your team will set clients up for success as new partners emerge.


The first step to a new approach to partnering with platforms and publishers could be as simple as dropping “vendor” from the lexicon and embracing a more collaborative mindset. When utilized correctly, partners can bring new insights and opportunities to the table that will help marketers achieve their objectives in digital.

Cover photo via ephotozine