How to Work with an Agency
In the final post of our three-part series on working with an agency, we’re back to discuss how to get the most out of your agency partnership. There are lots of great articles on this topic, and we’re quoting a few that are worth reading in-depth. But, if you only have so much time, we’ve picked a few that we’ve found are critical to quality.
Let’s be Partners, Rather than Clients and Service Providers
This philosophy pretty much sums up all truly successful projects and client relationships. But, it’s not easy. Money complicates philosophy, and both agency and client perceptions often get in the way. GES, a virtual event services company, summed up the tension around agency economics perfectly: “Hiring an agency is like buying a car from a dealer. They need to make money on the purchase, and you need to feel like you got the best value for the price.”1 Simply recognizing this economic model and moving past it can do wonders for the relationship. Likewise, understanding that for agencies, reputation is always a high stakes game. They need to make money. They want to deliver outstanding work.
The Partner Position
Once you enter into a partnership, the following things happen naturally. First, you suspend thinking of the agency as on a “need to know basis,” which shortchanges everyone. Second, you invest in the time it takes to make sure the agency understands your business, customers, brand and key stakeholders.2 Third, you foster the creative spark. Leaders of Canadian marketing firm Quarry were quoted in a CEB article on relationship-building best practices in which they discuss how to prevent creative apathy: “Saying “no” too many times or being too directive can kill a client/agency relationship.”2 It’s entirely fair to challenge your agency to exceed your expectations but not without your trust and critical insights.
Commit to Communicate
More of a best practice than philosophy, communication is a make-or-break practice for good relationships and successful creative work. Before you enter into an agreement with an agency, ask how they prefer to communicate with clients and evaluate whether or not you can commit to that. If an agency has no established practices, it’s a warning sign. If they need to talk every day, that may be a sign that they lack internal structure and decision-making. Depending on the project and timeline, the agency may need you to show up for a bi-weekly check-in or commit to certain benchmarks and feedback windows. Be honest with the agency if you need to be hands-off because it will likely affect the project outcome.
Expect Quality and Recognize Reality
This principle applies primarily to marketing and is a hard pill to swallow for both clients and agencies. Your agency wants you to succeed, even though there are certain things out of our control. As agency authority David C. Baker writes, “No matter how crisp our thinking is around marketing issues, there are still elements of the marketing mix that are out of our control. We’re marketing to humans, who show an unusual resilience at escaping our rules about how they should think and behave.”3
Accept the Limits You Set
Thinking back to the partner discussion above, it’s important to understand that agencies can, and often do, compromise their bottom line for a project. They may do this for a few reasons. Perhaps the project is a great fit for their portfolio. Likewise, the client may be someone with whom they want to establish a relationship. When an agency agrees to take less than their going rate for a project, it’s okay for them to establish guardrails around the scope, and it’s expected that a client will respect those limits. Remember that time is money, and every extra request or favor is impeding an already tight mission.
While imperfect relationships can produce good work, great relationships almost always produce equally great work. And, lest we forget to mention it and mention it loudly, it takes two parties to make a great relationship. While we expect a certain level of trust, information and autonomy from our clients, it is because these are the business requirements for creative work. And doing good work for, and with, our clients is the reason we’re here.