The Cannes International Festival of Relationships

Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it?  But it’s not, and in fact it’s the single fundamental element for creating award-winning communication ideas.

Imagine a festival to celebrate and reward those who maintain superior relationships in business.  We celebrate and reward so many other professional pursuits, yet the one underlying truth of anything great is that it takes a superior relationship to achieve greatness.

But this isn’t about the idea of creating a festival of relationships (although perhaps, there’s something in that), but rather, act as a reminder of what we all intuitively know.

So here’s a recent experience…

I used to live by the rule that the best idea won; that we could overcome a ‘weak’ or non-existent relationship with a bigger idea.  And by the way, I like to think of myself as a ‘relationship guy’, so it’s not as if I didn’t respect the ‘relationship factor’.  But boy… was I wrong.

After spending seven months as the newly appointed CEO of Grey Australia, I have a newfound appreciation for the importance of superior relationships. Without them, good things will rarely happen.

Lately, I was reflecting on our run of ‘seconds’ in new business pitches and lamenting the opportunities lost.  After 23 years in advertising, I thought of myself as a good judge of what will work and what won’t.  So it was really frustrating when we had to resign to runner-up instead of winning the grand prize when I thought our strategy, presentation and most important of all, IDEAS, were all terrific.

Hence with the belief the ‘best idea wins’ firmly entrenched in my mind, I decided to talk to our executive creative director and ask him to consider a new approach to creative leadership.  I explained to him that I wanted to apply the ‘make a change to get a change’ rule and prodded him to consider a different approach in leading our creative ideas that required a reasonable level of selflessness on his part.

24-hours later, he came back and said “I’ll give your idea a go, but I also want you to recognise we’re missing something even bigger”.  He then proceeded to dissect the last three big pitches we’d been involved in and quizzed me about who we had in the room that was going to be the key relationship person? The person the client will admire, respect and trust implicitly on a day-to-day basis.  Relationship with that one person that will lead to business success and ultimately, a coveted Cannes Lions.

My first reaction was one of modest denial because I instantly wanted to say, “That would be me!!!” One thing we do well at Grey Australia is relationships. But after thinking about it, I realised there were gaps. Fundamental gaps. Don’t get me wrong, we have great people – some of the best I have ever worked with, but I was assuming they were perfect for each and every pitch situation.  Therefore we needed to make some changes.

The proof of these shuffles will come in the next six months, but already I know we’re a better organisation because of my relationship with our ECD.  Without the trust and strength of our relationship, he may have never told me what I needed to hear.

So to to all leaders I say this…

Place ‘having the very best and strongest relationships’ at the top of your KPI’s. Without this as your core focus, other objectives will be difficult to achieve. You may have short-term gains, but the long game…the big results, will come from the strength of your relationships – internal & external.

There’s a plethora of tips for building and maintaining relationships, but after doing a lot of reading and deep thinking recently, here are my top picks:

  1. Trust – it is without question the single most important thing. When you’re pitching a BIG idea to anyone, ask yourself if they’ve got any good reason to trust you? If the answer is no, then it will make selling your idea 1000% harder. Here’s the difference – if you’re selling a really BIG scary idea to someone who trusts you implicitly they are likely to respond with “wow isn’t he a genius”. If you’re selling the exact same BIG scary idea to someone you don’t know, they are highly likely to think to themselves “it’s a very risky idea” and instantly doubt creeps in. They’ll dismiss you politely and you’ll lose an opportunity. Protect ‘trust’ at all costs.
  2. Communication styles – as we get older and more experienced we think it is our ‘right’ to enforce our own style on all comers. Never forget that everyone is different and you will always have to cater to different styles. You should simply realise that as you get more experienced you should get even better at adapting (not worse).
  3. Listen – an essential quality, but more often than not, an overlooked one.  Our industry embraces big personalities and often those personalities like to be heard.  It still amazes me how much we all try and talk at once and how much one can observe just by stepping back and listening.
  4. Frequency & proximity – I stole this one from our head of planning and strategy. Applying these two words to all your relationships is critical. Frequency in this case is how often you communicate with your contacts and proximity is how often you get to see them in the flesh.  Relationships are founded in closeness and seeing someone ‘live’ is by far the best way to build one (but don’t become a stalker though).  Social media is great, but don’t ever think these platforms will build you strong relationships in business.
  5. Nothing in return – once per month do something for a colleague/business partner without expecting anything in return. Monitor it and see how far you will go.  Harder than it sounds.
  6. Honesty – this is linked to point number 1, but what a way to disarm situations. Telling someone how you honestly feel is so refreshing and brilliant that I often see it used by the very best to save the day.
  7. Read the book – Likenomics by Rohit Bhargava. And no, it is not about that now famous ‘like’ button, but it will teach you a whole lot about the role of relationships in our business and why they should come just a smidgen ahead of ideas.

I’ll finish here because 7 is my lucky number.  But here’s one more for the road, build a database that tracks the contact you have with your relationships (using frequency and proximity). You may be very surprised with what you will find.



PS: I’m off to pitch the Cannes Festival of Relationships.  See you on the beach!

Luke Waldren

By: Luke Waldren, CEO, Grey Australia
About Luke

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