Team collaboration

To compete or collaborate? Popular questions answered for agencies and clients alike

Having been on both sides of a marketing partnership gives you a unique perspective. Sitting on the agency side, you’re concerned about how to best represent your agency, team, and their work to your clients – while delivering superb client service at the same time. On the client side, your concerns are often driven by the bottom line, managing up, motivating your agency teams and sometimes defending them. As an agency, you’re all about loyalty. As a client, you want the best of the best. While the best of the best can occasionally be found by partnering with one shop, more likely these days it’s achieved by partnering with multiple agencies that have different core competencies. This – understandably – can be jarring for an agency, who’s already feeling the pressure of clients wanting everything good, fast, and cheap. Not only do agencies now need to exceed client expectations, but they also need to learn how to collaborate with “competitors.”

I recently spoke on an Adweek webinar, How to coexist and cocreate with other agencies, with my former colleague Rebecca Ewan, VP Account Director at Leo Burnett. We were blown away by the questions rolling in on this topic. It’s easy enough to say “always opt to collaborate,” or “collaboration wins every time,” but it’s another thing to actually be in it and feel the frustration that comes along with new and unlikely partnerships. We’ve joined forces to bring you our perspective from both the agency and client side and best answer these common questions from the webinar:

We’ve always had a hard time agreeing on a brief template when collaborating with other agencies. Who do you believe should lead the group on getting one unified template?

Project managers or account managers are your best resource for ensuring solid brief development. Yes, naturally you’ll have different templates from each agency. But you should turn to your client management specialists to collaborate, discuss and craft the best custom template for your client and agency team. Don’t overlook this step. Your brief is the universal blueprint for your project.

In terms of leading the effort, see who would like to volunteer and if needed, be willing to volunteer yourself. This will be appreciated by your busy clients.  

Also, don’t just stop at the brief. Ensure you’re driving upfront and thorough discussion around the scope of work and collaboration processes. For example, what’s the best file sharing service for your agencies to use? How will you discuss next steps and action items among the different agency teams? You’d be surprised how much time is wasted when your teams are caught off guard when asked to simply send files on a new platform or try to collect feedback across various internal and external parties.

Emotions can run high when discussing creative. What’s “right” is completely subjective. Do you have a good approach in working with multiple agencies on whether a certain creative direction is the right one or not?

You’re spot on – creative drives emotion and is driven by subjectivity. Typically, there will be a creative agency within the group that has been assigned by the client. Let the creative team take the lead. Unfortunately, there are situations when being collaborative means also knowing your role and picking your battles. If you’re ensuring buy in from the group is taken into account during the briefing process, and the creative team is following the brief, the subjective decisions should stay between the client and the creative team. You should also test your messaging and your creative. Oftentimes, what resonates from those on the “inside” is different than what is effective and resonating with your end customer. For example, an executive may like a certain color or a certain play on words. The customer, however, may be clicking and responding to something less creative and more straight-forward. When in doubt, test.

If there is a creative agency, a media agency and a digital agency, who owns account management?

I traditionally look to my creative agency to drive account management on behalf of our “team.” When you think about it, the creative is the one common thread between your collaborators. The decisions that are made in creative direction often trickle down to digital and media (though you certainly can argue the reverse). Same goes for deadlines, much of your campaign hinges on the creative review and production timelines of a creative agency, so it’s critical that you have a project manager representative that is accountable from that agency. That being said, media and digital of course have an important role in helping to identify the brief/universal blueprint, so be sure they are always included in key decisions from the start.

As an agency, how do you handle collaborating with another agency that consistently goes rogue, and ultimately goes against your collective plans? We don’t want to point fingers or look like the problem agency to our client by calling them out.

This is tricky. I touched on a scenario where my agency went rogue on a pitch to my CMO when I was at another company. I was extremely frustrated. This is one of those cases when you have to take a deep breath before responding.

On one hand, you never want to put down good ideas, but surprises can bring more risk than reward. And, if that behavior is consistent, you feel like you’re always on the defense. When working with another agency that tends to bring up rogue ideas, try to probe a little bit further as to why. Try to understand their perspective and challenge them on how it ties back to the brief. If there is no clear tie, offer to work with them on it. For example, is there a way to take a piece of their idea and weave it into a concept that can work for the brief as well? It might even be wise to challenge how it ties back to the brief – and in particular how it effects the work that your agency is responsible for – with the client in the room, so that everyone can weigh in. You also need to be willing to compromise. Unfortunately, you should even be willing to concede if you’ve been heard and the client is in support of the idea.

I represent one of four agencies that work on a particular account and there are many inefficiencies in our collaboration with several hands in the pot. Why isn’t the client bringing on an agency of record for the sake of efficiency or trimming back to 2-3 agencies for specialty considerations?

The motivation behind working with multiple agencies is totally subjective. While the agencies are full-service and don’t tout specific core competencies, the client might see certain strengths for each in building their “dream agency team.” Or, it could be driven by procurement. Having competition can help justify keeping costs low. To your point, what goes unnoticed is the amount of inefficiency and work it takes to keep everything and everyone in line.

What if it’s the client that keeps you siloed from other partner agencies?

Your client might simply be keeping you siloed because – as silly as it may sound – they don’t want either agency to feel awkward knowing there is a competitor they have to work with. Try to convey the value of collaboration to the client by talking about what you can provide to the partner, as well as what you would like their insights on. You might be missing out on key learnings without shared information. Also, let the client know of the different ways putting you directly in touch could save everyone time. 

Do you have any tips for handling situations where the agency teams might have conflicting recommendations for the client that we just can’t join forces on?

Try to get to consensus with a brainstorming session about the conflicting ideas. Put together pros and cons for each and see if either side can see the other’s point of view or if there’s a hybrid of the two ideas that could come together. At the end of the day, you need to tie the ideas back to the brief and make sure that they fulfill what you’re trying to accomplish. If these tactics fail and you still cannot agree, present both ideas to the client in as neutral a way as possible.

How do you address and reset client expectations if you are new to a project that has existed for a while before you joined?

Is your agency new to the project, or you as an individual? If it’s your agency, it’s important to have an expectation setting discussion as early on as possible. This goes back to the scope of work you’ve agreed to with your client and making sure that it’s exhaustive in the commitment and service you are providing. If you’re walking into a situation where the client has high, unsustainable expectations, instead of talking about what your concerns are, try to focus the conversation on better ways to address some potential issues tied to those concerns.

If it’s you as an individual that is new to the situation, try to find out more from other team members about what the client’s expectations are and, if they are high, ask how they have been addressing it so far.

What tips do you have for knowing when to “stay in your lane” and when to ask for business assigned to another agency? For example, we’re a digital agency with a creative arm, but there is a creative agency already assigned to this client.

This can definitely be a gray area because agencies that focus on specific media platforms are typically the experts and know what works best for their medium. Never kill a good idea, but be sure to run your idea from concept to execution by the creative agency first. Have a strong argument as to why this idea would be best produced under your agency versus theirs. If it ties well into your brief and the overall creative direction without taking on a whole new approach, then you have wiggle room to pitch for the execution in your domain. If you are only seeking the business, and it’s not your actual area of expertise, it might be best to stay in your lane since that project already belongs to the other agency.

Any suggestions when someone at the client has formed a bond with someone at the other agency that is trying to take everything over? For example, the media agency has a strong personal relationship with the client and is constantly pitching their creative concepts and trying to take over the creative portion of the business.

Ah, the nature of the client service industry. This is proof that there is still value in good client-agency relationships.

First off, as an agency you need to make sure that your client is happy with what they hired you to do. If they’re pleased and excited about your work, you have little to worry about. You also need to make sure that you’re easy to work with. For example, during creative reviews is there always one piece of feedback that goes unaddressed? Are there more decisions left to be made by the client than perspectives offered by the agency? Make sure you’re buttoned up in your process and how you work together with your client. Little things like this that might not seem like a big deal can actually add up in your client’s mind. Finally, make the relationship with your agency personal by introducing your client to your extended team of creatives and producers, not just keeping the relationship between the account manager or project manager and client.

Even with RACIs in place, when you have more than one agency collaborating, then results are often shared.  How do you treat an issue going wrong without pointing fingers?

At the end of the day, each of the agencies and the client need to own the results collectively. It’s important to identify what the issue is, why (and which) metrics might not be where you need them to be, and then come up with a solution on how to improve together. This might result in one agency needing to focus more on the solution than another, but the point is you need to address the problems together.

How do you suggest an in-house creative team works collaboratively with an agency? Our in-house team finds it hard to collaborate as we are seen as the client.

My team feels your pain! We have both, with an in-house creative services team that often collaborates with outsourced agencies. It might be helpful to, as you would with your partner agencies, make sure it’s clear to the agencies who the client is (typically a marketing manager, director or VP) and who your in-house partners are. Try to identify who the Project Manager or Account Manager within your in-house organization would be. Beyond that, make sure that the team members who are focused on key areas sync up – for example the video producers from both parties. Additionally, make sure that your agency is as educated about your objectives, marketing goals, and target audience as your in-house team is.

As the in-house team, set up meetings just with the agency without the stakeholder or “client” so that you’re setting up the same environment that agencies partnering together would have. When possible, we also find it helpful to integrate external agencies into our internal processes and systems—using the solutions we use to communicate and collaborate on creative. Most importantly, make sure the lines of communication are open between the in-house team and the agencies. Regular communication and transparency are key to building the relationship.

Better collaboration all comes back to the brief

You’ll notice a common theme in our responses is always tying back to the brief. I have a saying with my team “No brief, no business.” If you can’t put the thought and effort into collectively agreeing on your brief, you’re not setting up your new team of agencies up for success. So be sure to not overlook this step. If you need some pointers on how to design a great brief, check out our 7 secrets to executing a great creative brief.

Thanks for reading and good luck!

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