MarketerInsights: Jessica Stafford, Cox Automotive

In this session of MarketerInsights, Joe Koufman, CEO of AgencySparks, interviews Jessica Stafford, VP of Consumer Marketing and Creative Services at Cox Automotive. Jessica talks about the agency/client relationship in the context of her experience on the digital agency side, and on the client side with She also details her agency discovery process, and outlines a few pet peeves that arise when agencies vye to win Cox Automotive’s business.

In the seven years that Jessica has been with, the company acquired several businesses in the automotive space to create the AutoTrader Group, which expanded their marketing department. Just a few short months ago, Cox Enterprises combined their B2B and B2C automotive businesses to form Cox Automotive.

Click on the video for the full interview!

Here are some highlights from our interview with Jessica:

The formation of successful agency/client relationship

“We really believe in building relationships and having very open, transparent relationships with those agencies. Also, mutual accountability and responsibility to business goals are how we develop strong relationships,” Jessica said.

Mistrust on both sides can contribute to a dysfunctional agency/client relationship. Interpersonal communication between agencies and their clients is just as important as mass communication in the marketing world. The key to a successful agency/client relationship is for brands to treat their agency as if they’re part of the team, and for agencies to focus squarely on their client’s challenges. (It certainly doesn’t hurt if an agency is an expert in their specific area or discipline.) A perfect agency/client relationship can be achieved when the agency and the client share goals, responsibilities, and passions.


Keeping agency ideas fresh

Jessica points out that’s long-standing agency partners have a very strong understanding of the brand, but are sometimes hesitant to pitch new ideas because they already know their client’s preferences. While there’s benefit in balancing consistency and risk, she asks her agency partners to pull out all the stops and deviate from their comfort zone to keep things fresh, especially since great ideas can come from anywhere!

Unlike many agencies’ perceptions, clients actually want to be challenged and don’t mind taking risks. "No really, we really want you to show us something that you think is going to make us laugh. Sometimes those are the best ideas,” Jessica explained. Even if you scale it back to a more mainstream approach, you have to push the envelope to uncover something new. This can sometimes require bringing in new faces along the way to maintain a fresh view of what the brand might need or what it should be doing. Other times, inspiring creative thinking requires only a bit of openness and accountability from the client side.


Agency search process

Like many brand marketers, Jessica primarily relies on referrals when creating a list of prospective agency partners. From there, it’s a vetting process. If her marketing team isn’t familiar with a potential agency partner, her team will ask for feedback from colleagues or acquaintances that have worked with that specific agency. She’s also a firm believer in trial and error – depending on budget and timing, Cox Automotive often gives agency partners a trial project to test their chops before awarding a larger relationship.

Jessica also explained that if and when feasible, her team tries to stay away from RFPs (Requests For Proposal.) “Frankly, we try to avoid that as much as possible. It ends up being just such a big time and money commitment from both sides,” she said.

One of our focuses at AgencySparks is to avoid that extensive, time-consuming dance that occurs when agencies and brand marketers try to find each other. Because we implement a one-month process to thoroughly vet each of our agency partners, we can assure brand marketers that we only work with best-of-breed agency experts. The money, energy, and time that is spent conducting and responding to the RFP or review process could be better spent solving business problems.


Agency pet peeves

To conclude the interview, Joe asked Jessica to share some of her biggest complaints about agencies’ attempts to win Cox Automotive’s business. Her response: the bait-and-switch that seems to happen all too frequently. Many companies lament that marketing agencies tend to secure new business accounts with an epic pitch deck and a promise that their potential client will have access to their “A” team, when in reality, the account is assigned to the agency’s “B” or “C” team the minute the ink dries.

For a company like Cox Automotive that is highly focused on creating and maintaining positive relationships, the “bait-and-switch” is a huge problem. They want a guarantee that their strategic account team understands their business and is prepared to execute. Jessica adds, “Something that we’re pretty transparent from the beginning, whenever we go into a new relationship, is that we want to talk to you up front. The people, or at least some of the people, who will actually be [working] on our account.”


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