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Tech Startups Agency

Agencies need to treat startups like partners, not production companies


By Lawrence Weber, managing partner innovation

May 5, 2016 | 5 min read

Most humans like to compare something new to something familiar. “Bulls are just like cows, except more challenging,” my grandfather used to say.

The same goes for organisations, and especially agencies. Over the years, we’ve worked out a way of treating people who can help us realise an idea, better service a client, or make a brand more successful.

For creative agencies, those people are production companies. No good piece of advertising, interactive film or outdoor is achieved without some involvement from our production partners.

The relationship we have with them is complex, but well-understood. The best ones keep our creatives and clients happy, and they are in tune with the way we pitch, communicate and work.

It’s not surprising then that when agencies started meeting and working with startups, we labelled them as production companies. They looked and smelled like people who would help us realise our creative and commercial ambitions and they seemed very eager to please us and our clients too.

A better approach

We’ve been mixing with startups now for two years, formally for clients like Unilever, and less formally via meet-and-greets with organisations like The Friday Club.

We’ve realised that they’re not like production companies at all. Treat them like they are and what you get is misunderstanding, disappointment and, sometimes, real annoyance.

If you want to know how to engage with them, this is what we’ve learnt:

Production companies understand what agencies do, startups don’t

Production companies understand that agencies pitch to win a client and that to execute a winning idea we outline a different set of possibilities, only one of which is chosen. They know they have to be flexible.

Startups don’t naturally understand this, and they can’t really afford to engage in a process with so many possible outcomes or which may be extended.

Remember that and spend some time explaining to your new partners how you work, and the processes.

Production companies understand clients, startups don’t

Production companies and agencies understand that clients have to present work to their stakeholders, and sometimes have trouble pushing new and brave things forward, particularly when it involves non-marketing people.

They also understand the issues caused by legal, procurement and finance departments.

When you engage a startup make sure they understand the context of your relationship with your client and the client’s relationship with their peers and superiors.

Startups do software, not bespoke creative work

The blessing and curse of being creatively driven is that we create bespoke and crafted work for almost every brief. It’s why the creative process is messy, difficult to manage and sometimes not very profitable.

Agencies and their production partners are set up emotionally and structurally to deal with this.

Startups simply aren’t. Survival depends on them creating a piece of repeatable IP that can be sold multiple times.

The meeting of the two worlds – messy and bespoke, versus defined and repeatable – is never seamless.

When you first start working with a startup be really clear about the bits of your idea that might change and ask them to be clear about which parts of their tech are flexible too.

Being partners means not always being in control

Agencies like to be in control, if not of an overall business strategy, then at least of the creative output.

The multiplication of different agency types that sit around a client’s table these days makes attaining and maintaining that control much harder. Adding startups makes it harder again.

Agencies wonder: "Aren’t we giving away revenue? Won’t they steal our clients?"

If you are upfront with how the relationship works, what elements the startup will take the lead on, and where the lines are drawn, then the working relationship should be fruitful and mutually beneficial.

In any case, once startups grasp the time, skill and emotional energy it takes to deliver great work, they will be probably be happy to cede client management anyway.

An upcoming IPA initiative is all about helping agencies understand the differences between the way agencies and startups – young, hugely talented, sometimes immensely inexperienced – work.

It should be possible: we’re good at empathy and human understanding.

So let’s have fun and play nicely.

Lawrence Weber is managing partner for Innovation at Karmarama, and co-chair of the IPA’s BrandTech group

In May 2016 the IPA will publish an 'Agencies and Tech startups working together, better PDF', which will provide invaluable insights into the current state of play between agencies and tech startups. Register here to be the first to receive it.

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