Partnerships require commitment and trust to be successful

Partnerships require commitment and trust to be successful

What kinds of relationships and structures are needed to make partnerships in the media industry work?


The news recently has been full of announcements about partnerships between companies. This is nothing new, but the trend seems to have accelerated after Covid. Every media property we represent is in essence a partnership between us and the publisher. Also, over the years we’ve brought content producers with similar goals together to exploit synergies and to achieve scale.

The concept of partnering in media, particularly in advertising sales, seems on the surface to be an obvious path to greater revenues. One might expect greater efficiency when sales functions are delegated to specialists, and that more salespeople would simply increase the total amount of advertising. However, life’s not always like that; the devil’s in the details.

Over the years we’ve learned some lessons about what kinds of organizations are appropriate to work with in a partnership and what kinds of relationships and structures are needed to make those partnerships work. We have discovered by experience what is necessary to achieve success.

Commitment. The first lesson is that top decision-makers must be totally committed to the plan and sold on any kind of revenue partnership. There must be a common and crystal-clear understanding about why the partnership was formed, what the objectives of that partnership are, how each participant’s contribution will be measured, and the benefits of the partnership to each party.

Similar rank. Years ago, we formed an advertising network composed of five of the biggest associations in the United States. We learned that all the people committing to such a relationship must have rank and authority equal to the others. There can’t be a senior vice president or CEO from one organization and a sales manager from another.

Mismatches result in wasted time and posturing that can derail the partnership. Top people who can make decisions on the spot may become frustrated with partners who must check with their bosses for approvals.  That imbalance can hamper or kill the relationship.

Mutual respect. Even among people of equal rank, successful partnerships depend on acknowledgement of the value of the contribution other participants and their organizations can make. We have seen top executives from powerful companies attempt to dominate their counterparts from weaker organizations. It’s important that mutual respect be extended down the line to the people tasked with implementing the agreements. There is no room for snobbery.

Essential matches. For a partnership to succeed, all participants must have matching goals, values, risk tolerance and work ethic. We have seen attempts at partnerships fail due to misalignments in each of these.

Trust. Partnership discussions usually begin with non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). As the discussions progress, lawyers often join the process, and the result generally is a contract.

All of that is necessary, but in my experience, it is even more important that the partners go beyond the contract and trust each other. If one or more of the partners feel that the other or others may try to cut them out of the benefits they should enjoy, the partnership is at serious risk.

Another trust issue concerns hidden agendas and undisclosed third-party relationships. These kinds of issues can bury a partnership. The more clarity, the better.

Communication. There must be a way to check in and make sure each participant stays in alignment, not only with goals but also with agreed-upon task assignments.

When many people are involved, we have found the “zipper” idea useful, where each person coordinates with his or her counterpart — CEO with CEO and manager with manager.

Regularly scheduled monthly or quarterly meetings can be supplemented with video or telephone calls to handle unusual, urgent matters. However, there must be agreement up front as to what constitutes “urgent,” to avoid false emergencies or use of the mechanism to hound one of the partners. Important but non-urgent matters are best dealt with at the regular check-in meetings.


In conclusion, some of the basics needed to create a successful partnership include:

  • Top management must support and endorse the partnership.
  • Partners must see themselves as equals
  • All participants must respect the others and their organizations
  • Goals, values, workstyle, levels of commitment and work ethic must match
  • Partners must trust each other beyond the contract
  • Communication must be structured properly

James G. Elliott has served as president of outsourced media sales firm James G. Elliott Co. since its founding in 1984. He is also a member of the SIIA CEO Council.

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