Playing nicely together in the sand pit

Liz, October 14, 2016

Agency collaboration

The way big clients commission creative work is changing. Once upon a time they’d just hire a great big agency to do the whole project. But in recent years, the more creative and more cost-effective option is often to hire several smaller agencies – or a big one and a couple of smaller ones. But this more recent approach hasn’t been without its teething problems. We think there have to be changes on both client and agency side to get the best value out of this new arrangement.

Before the recession, there was a natural order in the creative world. Big budget jobs went to the ginormous multi-disciplinary agencies, smaller jobs went to the kinds of agencies that employed 20-100 people. And the piddly, don’t-even-need-sign-off budget jobs went to the teeny tiny agencies (10 people or fewer) and freelancers. There might occasionally be a highly paid lone consultant in the mix… but by and large the natural order reigned.

Then came the recession – and as it settled in, every budget came under scrutiny. And in creative communications, the natural order started to break down. Why pay a ginormous agency – with its project management, account management, strategy and we’re-very-big fees – when a smaller agency’s work could be better and cost less?

Let me tell you, this has been a brilliant trend for Wordtree. We’re doing huge projects with impressive clients – and maybe that wouldn’t have happened in the old world order.

The old adage that you won’t get fired for hiring IBM isn’t necessarily as true as it used to be. But it doesn’t mean that bringing a number of small agencies together is all plain sailing.

Multi agency approach

Smaller agencies can’t do everything. In fact, their work can have more impact because they’re specialist and niche rather than jack-of-all-trades. But it does mean that, per project, you need more of this size of agency. Maybe, for example, a content agency, a web design team, a video team and a specialist consultant. All on one project.

That’s not to say, of course, that big agencies are out of the picture. They’re not. But they too are often being asked to collaborate with smaller outfits to deliver projects.

This multi-agency approach is cheaper. And most importantly, in my book, the work can be a lot more creative.

But – and this is a big but – this is a group of people who may never have worked together before. Who have different agendas and priorities. Who may not even like each other very much – or at least not respect each other’s approaches.

And client-side, this is becoming a royal pain in the bum for the marketer or brand specialist who might be used to the pre-recession days of having regular catch-ups with the creative and account director, feeding back and catching up regularly as a project (or stream of projects) progresses.

The DBA-commissioned What Clients Think 2016 survey has some interesting things to say on agencies “working collaboratively”.

The survey asked 435 clients what frustrated them about working with multiple agencies on one project. This is what they said they didn’t like:

  • Personality clashes and clashes of ego between agencies
  • Overt competition for work where skills overlap
  • Inconsistent communication between agencies
  • Agencies looking to the client for leadership instead of sorting out some issues between themselves
  • Overt jockeying for position so that a perception develops of an agency that is working for its own glory rather than the good of the client*

I wasn’t surprised to read this. There’s nothing in there that we haven’t seen or experienced ourselves here at Wordtree. And in my experience it comes down to a number of factors:

The larger the agency, the more the margin is likely to be the highest priority

By which I mean that larger agencies have a more measured focus on the money they make. Smaller agencies will often decide to over-service because they like their client or because the work itself is so interesting. Bigger agencies – with their timesheets, bonus schemes and rigid processes – often have their eye fixed first and foremost on the bottom line.

These are deeply differing cultures. And the friction between these two agencies will nearly always come down to “but we want to do what’s right for the brand/client/audience” vs. “we want to do what’s right for our agency”. The latter approach, in my opinion, can get in the way of effectiveness.

I’ve sat at tables where the larger (usually design) agency has pushed an approach that involves multiple items of print collateral that need to be regularly updated, complex web/app propositions hosted on their own servers – basically a lot of “stuff” that keeps the roubles rolling in. I’ve been the lone voice saying, “Actually, maybe we could start by revisiting existing touchpoints and see if we can adapt what we already have… and update during the natural cycle.” Or in other words, let’s not add to the complexity, let’s just see if we can update what we already have so it has more impact.

At this point the agency with different priorities has a lot to lose if they don’t try to put you down immediately. The result? What looks like a squabble. The client thinking, “Oh my gosh, can’t you people just get on?”. Lots-of-collateral agency thinking: “You annoying bint, why don’t you just get back in your box?” – and the agency suggesting the leaner or unorthodox approach thinking: “Bloody hell, is this really worth it?

The client not setting any ground rules – or putting anyone in charge

If you were building a house from scratch, you’d need a whole load of people involved – architects, builders, plumbers, electricians, glaziers, roofers, interior decorators, carpenters and maybe specialist restorers – and quite a few others besides. You wouldn’t dream of just turning them loose on a plot with a rough brief and saying: “Look, I’ve got enough to get on with, I’m paying you, so can you just work nicely together please?” You’d appoint a project manager. Or you’d project manage the thing yourself.

Beautiful things don’t make themselves. They need direction and they need ground rules and parameters. You need to tell one carpentry firm: “OK, I’d like you to work on the spiral staircase.” And to tell the other: “I only want you to work on the windows and kitchen units.” Each firm probably has ideas and opinions on the work of the other – but if you want to get your house built on budget and on time, you set the ground rules (which could include a way to flag up issues/make suggestions).

In my opinion, you can’t simply ask a number of creative agencies to “just get on with it”. They’re not a team. Often they’re competitors. And for the thing to work, there needs to be a greater level of involvement client-side.

Asking for collaboration simply isn’t enough. Because what collaboration means to one agency might mean something very different to another.

The way forward

The way clients interact with creative agencies is changing – and we all need to change with it. Agencies need to structure projects and timelines assuming that several parties will be involved. They need to actively get to know the people and the agencies they’ve been asked to collaborate with. And they need to operate with respect and by prioritising the outcome for the client.

agency collaboration

But I do feel that the client has a big role to play in this too. And these are my suggestions for what could make the multi-agency collaboration work much better than it sometimes does:

Ground rules

Establish the way you want agencies to work together and produce a handbook and guidelines. Start every project not with a creative kick-off session, but with a meet up to establish ground rules.

These could include:

  • How to frame ideas and feedback
  • Giving each team member time to speak
  • What “collaboration” means – eg, crediting individuals with ideas and work, talking positively, sharing information
  • Making sure feedback is constructive and in the interests of the project
  • What the penalties will be for not working collaboratively

Most large organisations have this kind of approach when it comes to things like anti-bribery and corruption – or to supply chain management, for example. And they are viewed as approaches that enhance the organisation’s brand and reputation. I really believe there could be a similar approach to establishing ground rules for multiple agencies working together on one creative project.

It would also be helpful to have a shared online workspace – like ActiveCollab or Freedcamp – so that all contributions and feedback are visible and the project management process is transparent.

Project management

Someone needs to be in charge. If the client doesn’t want to lead the project themselves, they need to appoint a lead agency – and make it clear to everyone involved what roles and responsibilities are.

What will this solve?

We’ve been involved in projects where out of the blue a designer or account director from another agency wades in with a ginormous critique of the work we’re contributing. We’re not talking useful comment here – like: “Hey guys, did you know the client doesn’t use this particular description any more?”

It’s more like a wholesale assault that’s designed to get us kicked off the project – or at least relegated to the junior leagues. It’s nasty – and thank God so far, it’s only resulted in the critiquing agency pissing off the client.

We’ve also had a client call us “petty” when we asked if we could present our own work, rather than have it presented by another agency. (Because doesn’t everyone love having their incisive thinking claimed by a rival agency?)

But neither of these situations needed to have happened. They simply needed some ground rules and structure – and both client and agencies would have had less stress and faster experience.

If you’d like to talk to us about getting some ground rules and a handbook in place, I always love to have a coffee and a chat.


*You can download the survey here.

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