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What’s the key to a successful agency collaboration?


By Richard Draycott, Associate Editor

April 12, 2024 | 12 min read

Experts share the rules of engagement for keeping an agency collaboration running smoothly.

When collabs go wrong

Who's to blame when collabs go wrong?

You’re working in collaboration with another agency or multiple agencies to deliver a project. Three weeks in, things are going wrong.

Bad or no communication. Missed deadlines. Confusion around fees and billings. Shifting project scope. Surprise key personnel changes. Tense Teams calls about who is letting the team down. The list of what makes an agency collaboration go off the rails is as long as many of the arguments that they create and the resentments that result.

So, what is the key to ensuring that an agency collaboration results in the delivery of a campaign or project on time and on budget and not years spent in therapy to deal with the stress and strain of a collaboration? What are the rules of engagement and what parameters should be put in place to keep an agency collaboration running smoothly?

To assume can make an ass of u and me

Tess Sanders-Smith, studio head, Maverick Media: “As well as the cardinal rules about dedicated kick-off meetings, brief scrutiny sessions, and regular check-ins all with the client, we have one golden rule as an agency: never assume! In the absence of fact lives the murky gray area of assumption, and incorrect assumptions are often the quickest way to derail a project. Everyone can be guilty of falling into the trap (both agency and client-side) of assuming we know what each other means, what the intention of a project is, what the context for a decision is, who is doing what next – the list goes on! We are critically self-aware of this and ensure we overcommunicate, ask questions and clarify at every stage. We always aim to do this efficiently without adding additional burden to the client, and we find that both our projects and relationships are stronger for it.”

Define leadership, share values and trust

Mark Fawcett, CEO, We Are Futures: “A good relationship starts with good leadership. The relationship lead within each agency sets the tone for the wider team. If they make it all about a land grab for the biggest budget, that’s how their colleagues will behave. If they make it all about collaboration to smash the client’s ambitions, then collectively grow the work for the future, ditto. Leaders have to get together and look for common ground in agency culture and approach and jointly agree on what success looks like. Putting it down in writing is important so that all team members know. Then leaders have to agree on responsibilities with the client and get this written down, too. With this in place, the details around work processes, billing, sign-offs, etc can follow. Without it, you always risk conflict and challenge.'”

Sarah Stratford, founder and strategic partner, Favour the Brave: “There have always been squabbles over who does what and where the budget gets spent. But with clear ground rules at the start and a mature approach from everyone involved, the client should get a result that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Key to making this happen is casting the right agency partners in the first place and then clearly communicating which partner is responsible for what. But, more important still is establishing a project or campaign lead from within the client team who pulls the various strands together and polices any agency partner’s attempts to overstep into others territories. In the past, the ATL agency was often left to lead, which led to a last-minute scramble to pull work together once they were in a position to share their work – with an independent or client-side lead, it’s easier for everyone to work in parallel.”

John Keane, CEO, Ardmore: “Collaboration is the new norm, and it’s all about trust. That starts with respect. When we value each participating agency’s contribution to our client’s outcome, not just the time invested in doing the work, we create trust. Then it’s easy to agree who leads, who owns which elements of the project, and how the revenue is split.”

John Harris, CEO, Worldwide Partners: “Effective agency collaboration takes a spirit, not a system. You need to focus on people, not processes, and the people must already share values. You can’t fake or impose values; you share them or you don’t. Indies have an edge in this, being free of competing P&Ls and organizational politics. With shared values, you can establish a shared agenda – the client’s need – where the collaboration team is all for one. They’ll create the right process to support their respective roles,and the financials will become obvious.”

James Wilde, Head of Growth & Marketing, Assembly Europe: “Working with multiple agencies can be tricky and it’s not something many agency folks would admit to proactively seeking to do. However, reticence to adapt to this increasingly common way of working can be fatal. As the marketing spectrum gets broader, clients inevitably require more agencies to service their increasingly complex needs. And any marketer worth their salt doesn’t want these agencies operating in silos. At Assembly, we actively support clients working with various partners, be that within our Stagwell stable or wider market. The key is having a north star KPI that everyone can rally around instead of the nimbyism of optimizing to your specific agency goal. If all of the involved agencies can have their remuneration linked to that North Star, even better.”

Stay in your lane

Jesse Vahsholtz, executive director and account management, PPK: “The client expectations of cross-agency collaboration are integration and best-in-class thinking. However, the business objectives of each individual agency can often be at odds with that. There are two core pieces that lead to successful integrated planning and execution. Firstly, a client-provided ’swim lane’ or RACI designation by the agency at the time of briefing. Secondly, the invitation or openness for the agency to propose the executional scope that is derived from the plan or project. With this, each agency has the opportunity to leverage its expertise and value without the undertones of threat/competition. While it’s natural to feel that sense of competition for business, the real opportunity is to show true partnership to your shared client and focus on growing your business through the strength of that partnership.”

Matt Christey, co-founder, Dirty Jack: “As far as the client is concerned, we have a squeaky-clean monogamous marriage with our agency and freelance partners. The client pays us to be responsible for delivering the goods. Simple! Sure, behind the scenes, we’re getting frisky with our ’creative friends with benefits’ to deliver a service, but we practically use burner phones and false identities to keep the client away from the (inevitable) chaos of video production. We recently made a seven-minute Facebook ad for Air Landline. The only reason we’re able to pull that kind of stuff off is because the client is NOT involved in how we bring on talent. In that regard, we basically tattoo the project deadline onto the foreheads of our lovely freelancers. If they’re late for a deadline, it’s on us. It’s not their job to keep our client happy. All we want is for them to do their respective work in peace. Once finished - we pay freelancers with the upfront cash that we’ve received from the client. That way, there are no awkward IOUs if back-end payments are delayed. The last thing you want is to owe £15,000 to freelancers because your client has gone full Harry Houdini and vanished on a project. We’ve been there. It’s miserable.”

Libby Brockhoff, CEO, Odysseus Arms: “Swim lanes. Super successful collaboration is 100% about planning out who is going to do what then sticking to your ‘lane.’ Modern agencies/suppliers have so many overlapping capabilities, so if the leaders of collaborating agencies want to save a ton of time, limit team frustration and put the most into the solution, stay in your lane to go fast.”

Amanda Dwyer, senior vice-president and group account director, EP+Co: ”Aside from establishing tactical table stakes, like defining the lead agency and group status meetings, good dynamics start with the client communicating roles and responsibilities as soon as the relationships are formed. Understanding who is responsible for what is the difference between collaboration and competition. The best IAT processes work when agencies know that any success is shared success and dig into the assignment together without fear of losing project revenue to another team. This peace of mind needs to come from the client. It’s also critical that clients trust their agency partners to work together behind the scenes without hand-holding; that will cultivate partnerships where honest dialogue and brainstorming sessions flourish. When clients help create safe spaces between partner agencies, both parties can give one another constructive criticism and feedback that promises to drive fantastic work before it ever hits the client’s desk for review.”

Fletcher Whitwell, partner and chief media and publishing officer, R&R Partners: “As an independent agency, now 50 years strong, we build successful collaborations on three key foundations. One, no egos allowed. Two, set clear objectives and lanes from the onset. And three, choose like-minded agencies to partner with. When we work collaboratively as agency partners and client as one team, we can bring forward custom perspectives and creative solutions from our collective of independent thinkers.”

Be open and honest (and know your partners well)

Samantha Lester, studio head, Ichi Worldwide: “We have 10 sister agencies who we often work with when delivering end-to-end solutions for clients, so we’re well versed in collaboration. Open comms is one way to plan for success. An internal weekly or bi-monthly strike call always helps to ensure any changes or information sharing is captured before anything has the chance to go awry. Having clear roles and responsibilities (plus ultimate client escalation points) ensures that there is no ambiguity when it comes to making decisions. This is key when you’re working with multiple partners and (usually) at speed! Finally, a best practices document collating the brief, workflow and any processes really does centralize the team regardless of which partner they are attached to.”

Kristen Cromer, head of strategic accounts, Code and Theory: “Ensuring a clear definition of roles and responsibilities is a good start, but not enough. We are typically highly dependent on one another’s timelines and deliverables. Sharing schedules at the beginning and regular updates is critical. So is setting expectations (even sharing examples) of what the deliverables will be in order to better coordinate across teams. It’s important not to rely on the client as the go-between among agencies for every aspect of communication. There will inevitably be things lost in translation. That doesn’t make for a very good client experience. Identify leads from each agency to establish a real relationship upfront. This gives us the opportunity to have a direct line of communication when necessary. Check-in regularly, especially when there is tension – working through issues together can build rapport and trust and ensure a better outcome for clients. Mostly, it’s important to be consistent, direct, and professional in sharing cross-agency experiences with clients. Be sure to share the successes of the relationship in addition to challenges, and ask for the client’s support in navigating through the challenges when we’ve hit a wall. These steps help lead to successful client outcomes, which is what we all want.”

Jennifer Pisczak, vice-president and group account director, 22Squared: “At 22Squared, we believe in a partnership mentality. And it doesn’t only apply within our walls. It applies to the agencies we work with, the vendors we execute with and our clients. Tips to establish this mentality include getting to know your partners. Understand their skill sets, respect their expertise, and become familiar with what it takes for them to accomplish their tasks. This helps define roles and responsibilities and establishes respect. Don’t be afraid to workshop, brainstorm, and share early and often. Showcasing your confidence establishes ownership in your role, and ultimately, the collaboration leads to better work and a more efficient manner. Set expectations for your team and understand partner expectations. This helps manage the logistics - collaborative timelines, asset sharing, budget allocations etc. Know the end goal and align on it as a team. Working towards the same goal builds camaraderie and takes away an ’enemy’ mentality. And finally, give grace, always.”

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