There are many lessons that this pandemic has taught us, and one of them surely is that communications can no longer be regarded as an optional add-on to a successful business.

Your communications assets are as valuable as the tangible stock you hold or the services that you sell. Brands who have communicated well with their people, their customers, their investors have fared better than those who chose to pull the drawbridge up.

In the last downturn, many businesses cut their communications spend. This time feels different, the rise of ESG means that more businesses are savvier to the need to demonstrate purpose and speak directly and with authenticity to all of their audiences.

For those of us in the business of communicating, it means we need to up our game and demonstrate and drive value – in a way that communicators and non-communicators alike can understand.

Too often in relationships with clients, agency ways of working can get in the way of delivering value. Output trumps outcome, short-term sales trumps long-term value.

I remember having a conversation with a consultant from an agency I had retained. I listened patiently while they excitedly briefed me on a new product. There were just two problems: firstly, it wasn’t remotely relevant to our business. And secondly, the tool they were trying to flog me sounded suspiciously like the service we were paying for with our retainer.

I didn’t buy the product. And I wasn’t thrilled to see that they’d counted the pitch against the time they had spent on the account that month, so the relationship didn’t last. The agency (which is still going) was fine at what they did. But they were never very good at understanding what I needed. They were focused on selling me services and products, when I wanted to buy solutions.

When you work in-house the last thing you want is to be bombarded with unfiltered monitoring or impenetrable Westminster process. You want someone to make sense of it for you, to help you spot the opportunities to shape the agenda or to refocus your strategy, to be the extra person in your team while you grapple with the challenges and mundanities of running an organisation.

I wanted the agency I had hired to take the time to get to know my organisation, to find out what mattered to us so that it could help us with the things at the heart of our strategy – growth, better customer engagement and digital transformation. Instead, I got monitoring that felt like it was produced with no one and everyone in mind.

If 2021 brings a return to something resembling normal life, I hope that it will also herald some new, better ways of doing things, starting with rebooting the client-agency relationship. It’s a partnership, not a transaction.

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