INFLUENCER: Joshua Burke, VP Strategy & Major Accounts at Music Dealers, shares some useful work-life lessons for any vendor
Many brands are beginning to move away from only hiring large one-stop shops and giant agencies to manage all of their marketing, advertising, and vendor service needs. A lot of organizations are now partnering with boutique firms, working with them directly to help fulfill a specific and more focused service as part of their larger marketing strategy. These new types of partnerships can drive both business efficiencies and a heightened quality of content, leading to innovative (but sometimes uncharted) relationships between the world’s biggest brands and the industry’s most niche service providers.
For many account leads, creatives, or project managers in these smaller companies, the process for working directly with a larger brand may be a bit overwhelming. Don’t worry, you’re not alone.
As VP of Strategy and Major Accounts at Music Dealers
, it’s been my job to oversee many aspects of music strategy and sourcing for some of the world’s top brands and their partner agencies. While I’m proud of my company’s role in these creative decisions, things have not always (if ever) been smooth-sailing. For a thirty-person shop like Music Dealers, you can imagine our excitement and trepidation upon signing our first direct-to-brand partnership with a Fortune 100 brand in 2011. Since then, I’ve come out with a few work-life lessons that should help any vendor navigate and grow their relationships with their clients — whether that’s a global powerhouse or a regional store.
1) Act like the expert you know you are
When we were first enlisted as the global music partner for our first major brand client, I admit that I was a bit nervous of screwing it up. I didn’t want to step on any toes, I wanted everything to be perfect, and so I asked for as much musical direction as the client was willing to give, until finally we were told, “The reason why we’re working with you is because you’re the experts.” So, that’s who we started to be. We became more decisive and confident with our music options, we trusted our expertise in music sourcing, we stopped asking for excessive amounts of direction, and close rates got much better. No individual or company is hired to create more work for their client — the whole point of your service is to solve problems and create less work.
2) Don’t Break Your Back At Every Hurdle
When you land a stellar account, you’ll want to prove the worth of your service, especially if the relationship is close and personal … but don’t kill yourself doing so. Many too easily forget that clients are people too, with their own personal lives and day-to-day struggles. They’re compassionate humans, not ruthless taskmasters. Keep up that hustle, but maintain mutual respect to ensure a relationship that values all parties appropriately -- and if need be, stand up for what’s right.
3) Be a person, not a sales machine
People want to work with people they like and trust. Just like you, your clients are always in meetings and on the phone. They have loads of experience communicating with many types of people — they don’t want a simple conversation with you to sound like an overly rehearsed pitch. Trust me, they know very well when they’re being sold to. They want to build authentic relationships with their consumers, so you need to do so as well with your clients.
4) Hurry up and wait
Whatever it is that someone wants from you, it was probably needed yesterday. It’s a given that whatever someone is asking you for, they expect it to become your highest priority. So, you bust your ass, nearly kill yourself to deliver on time and on budget, and then you may not hear a peep for two weeks or more. While admittedly frustrating, it’s incredibly normal and shouldn’t be taken as a slight against you or your work. If the client was dissatisfied, you probably would have heard about it.
5) Mad Men can get mad
As a vendor/partner, although you have a remit to work directly with the brand client, you will also inevitably be working with their advertising agencies and production houses on a regular basis. Agency folks arguably work harder than anyone else in the industry and are often under a lot of stress to deliver. While a great portion of their job is creative, their role in the client relationship can be quite challenging. They hustle to make deadlines, endure the brunt of any client backlash, and strive to show no signs of weakness to the client to get the job done well. And so, they might sometimes take their frustration out on the vendors, meaning briefs might be cold and calls might go unanswered. Stung from this rebuff, it is easy for many vendors to say that some agency people have an unwarranted chip on their shoulder. In my opinion, that conclusion is dismissive, dysfunctional, and frankly immature. Understand that agencies are also facing tough expectations — brash communication comes with the territory. If it bothers you that much, go grab a drink after work and complain to your friends. Just leave your frustration at the bar.
6) It’s okay to ask for feedback
We don’t win every project we pitch for, and I doubt many others do. Yet of course, we always wonder “why?” in those cases. While it would be naive to expect feedback from every lost opp, don’t be afraid to ask for feedback from time to time. More often than not, the decision was just a creative toss-up between your product and another vendor’s; however, sometimes there might be something bigger at stake. There’s only one way to find out — ask. Always remember, as long as your deliverables are good and the quality is there, more opportunities will always come your way.
7) Never settle for anything less than perfection
This sounds super cheesy, but it’s true. Striving for perfection will make you win more opps and build stronger relationships. To do so, though, every team member must be operating at 100% proficiency – from the social media intern up to the account leader. Any kink in the chain will reflect in your work, so be sure to do what you can to keep morale high in your office. When your entire team collectively strives for perfection, your work shines all the brighter.
8) Stay true to your mission
You need a mission statement that you and your team can rally behind. Without having something worth fighting for, it’s far too easy to put your head down, run on autopilot, and clock out at 5:01. At Music Dealers, our mission is to provide opportunities to our community of artists whose music we pitch to brands. Your company might have a similar community you fight for and defend — keep them top-of-mind in everything you do, and the billings will come.
9) Understand the needs of your client’s consumers
One of my mentors once told me, “When working directly with a brand, lead with humble confidence.” You need to be confident in your understanding of the client’s consumers, but you can’t act like you know more than the brand does about those consumers. Additionally, it’s important to remember that as a vendor you only provide one of several functions to the brand — there’s a lot more that goes into a campaign than your contribution alone. For us, that’s music, and we know that good music always follows good creative — not the other way around. Learn the brand’s consumer recruitment and retention strategy as it relates to your particular service offerings, and then advise them on how your work can complement and not retract from that strategy in a positive and productive way. No complaints should come without thoughtful solutions.
10) Don’t worry about blame
Mistakes inevitably happen. When something falls through the cracks, whether it’s because of miscommunication or a sudden change to the campaign specs, you shouldn’t bother with pointing fingers. Figure out a solution as fast as possible, in a professional manner, and ensure that your project needs can still be fulfilled. You might just have to sweat out the stress a little bit more than you want to, but your relationship with the client will be much better in the long run if you keep your head down and move forward. If a bigger problem needs to be addressed, work it out in a professional manner so things run smoother next time.
This list could go on and on. As any vendor like us knows, you learn something new every day when working side-by-side with a Fortune 100 brand. If you and your team can keep your wits sharp as you battle the odds, even greater partnerships might reveal themselves to you and your output will get better and better.
Joshua Burke is VP Strategy & Major Accounts at Music Dealers