For better results: Treat your agency partners more like consultants

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Complacency is as much a partnership as collaboration. Stop treating your agency partners like the lowest-bidding vendors, and give them a real chance to shine

Consistently, creative agencies have come under fire for a plethora of shortcomings. Marketers like Brad Jakeman, president of PepsiCo, claim ad agency models are breaking and question the level of innovation by agencies. 

With business challenges more complicated than ever, it makes sense that marketers have heightened expectations. In today’s market, agencies are expected to deliver a wider range of solutions, for bigger business problems, on far smaller budgets, with similar or more limited processes. What perhaps hasn’t matched the pace of change, however, is clients’ (and many agencies’) desire to evolve the way we work together to keep pace with expectations. 

Agencies have been slow to adopt new skillsets or models. In all fairness, though, many evolved at the same pace as their clients: slowly or not at all. Complacency is as much a partnership as collaboration. As a result, many marketers look to specialized partners — innovation firms, digital specialists, production/content specialists, social agencies — to grow their business. But, these teams bring a new set of complexities — a range of isolated and inefficient tactics, staffing against multiple partners, and other process challenges. 

When smaller strategic partners outpace full service agencies, their two most consistent advantages are access and agility — access to information, the C-suite and other critical leaders, and the ability to design their own timelines, stakeholders, sprints, and deliverables, catering the process to the client. 

Evolved agency partners (those innovating capabilities and staffing diverse talent) can produce higher quality and more innovative work when you treat them more like consultants. The reality is agencies aren’t afforded the same flexibility that consultancies receive from brand clients. While consultancies are given the opportunity to identify an objective independent of an expected solution, have access to information needed to determine the best process, the ability to build a multi-disciplinary team, agencies often work without increased access, new information and new skillsets and all within whatever was scoped for the last project.

The barriers to an elevated relationship with a full-service agency come from the ways companies empower these partners — or fail to. Many marketers expect a high level of collaboration and contribution when it comes to "the work," but far less so when it comes to the process. The output is a reflection of the input. 

One fairly easy way to implement solution is to create a more immersive and less pre-determined process experience for your partners from day one. This should consist of five things. 

  1. A more thorough onboarding experience. Rather than relying on old strategy and product decks, make sure you do the work to ensure your agency understands the big bets you are making to grow, your business portfolio, and what R&D is chasing. Let the team craft a more robust diligence process and conduct interviews with stakeholders that represent every critical discipline in the business with a diverse agency team in attendance. This will ensure an understanding across the entire agency team of how each discipline serves your business. 
  2. Designing the process, together. What is the best process for this type of project? What are all key moments or challenges on the timeline, whether it be vacations or presentations? Do you have the staff and decision-making structure to move fast? Can you attend daily scrum sessions or set immovable meetings to accelerate timelines? Will your teams use slack? Does the project need time to staff new skillsets? Full transparency and more time spent on process design can create more efficiency and agility.
  3. Deep and ongoing product immersion. For obvious reasons, it’s critical your agency team has a deep understanding of your product and the challenge at hand. Agency folks study, live and breathe brands for a living. Nevertheless, those teams are often deprioritized, not given product to test and overlooked as potential brand advocates. Go out of your way to proselytize the agency as the most fervent fans of your products. Give them access to the engineers; give them insane discounts on everything, from Day One. They will go crazy deep, and it’s likely you’ll never have to correct them about product copy. There is a way to make every product immersion fun with some thought applied. Heck, ask the agency for help planning this. 
  4. Never stop learning. Is there an ongoing plan, outside of particular campaigns, to keep all teams in the company and agency immersed in the consumer or sales environment? Staff is always changing, learning should be ongoing and ready for new folks to jump in.  Even if its just a few extra ethnography days twice per year, open to anyone who needs a refresh client or agency side, its hugely beneficial in ensuring a constant and deepened understanding of your consumer experience. A meal after a day of immersion (not focus groups) is a surprisingly fruitful and interesting way to generate new ideas and ultimately leads to better outcomes. 
  5. Optimize with feedback. People often complain Millennials want to many reviews and too regular feedback, but I believe agency/client process is so far in the other direction, it’s scary. Finding a way to wipe egos aside, dissect the process and hold people accountable for improvement shouldn’t feel like a personal critique. Instead, it’s a shared mission for all teams to make better work more efficiently with better, smoother relationships and communications. Make time for it, hire a coach if needed and do it at least twice per year. 

If agencies are treated more like business partners than just creative vendors, they can deliver much more value to an organization. For a more passionate and engaged business partner, do the work to create more immersive experiences for that partner no matter who they are. However, if you do this and you get limited returns, you do probably have an old school agency that should die. Let’s get back to being highly collaborative and invested partners who grow businesses and brands together, not a battle of low cost vendors for hire, the divorce rate is too high. 


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