Death to the ego: How agencies can encourage greater collaboration within their own walls

Members of the IPA's Brand Technology Group provide an industry view on the impact technology is having on brands, consumers and agencies.

We’re all creative people, and we all want to make the best stuff we can – stuff clients will love us for, stuff real people enjoy engaging with, and stuff we enjoy making.

The stuff we make as an agency used to be easy to define. It was advertising: messages in various formats beamed into people’s daily lives. And the process of making this stuff used to be easy too. We all knew the rules. We knew what our job titles actually meant (see below for mine – the irony is not lost). As departments in an agency, we knew what our roles were, and as agencies we knew how to work together and what we were in charge of.

And when everyone knows what they’re doing, they can all just go off and do it. That is why we never really needed to collaborate. (Three-hour inter-agency status conference calls do not count as collaboration.)

So why is it important to collaborate now?

Well, it’s because the stuff we’re producing has changed. Even the most traditional agencies are no longer happy just concepting and producing traditional content. We’re all trying to produce (to a greater or lesser extent based on our collective bravery) this new type of stuff – let’s call it digital. Ha, yes, digital. Of course the term digital can literally mean anything now. And that’s good.

But because it can mean anything it also means that the traditional rules of making stuff no longer apply. And without our trusty rulebook telling us exactly how to produce this stuff, how are we supposed to navigate our way through this new world?

One way is to look to the experts. But we can’t hire them all, it’s just not viable. So instead we share. We work collectively, we collaborate – or at least we should. As the line continues to blur between idea and execution, it’s not as simple to get to ‘the big idea’, and then let other agencies execute it. We need to collaborate right from the start. The person in the room who understands how Snapchat works as a media platform is now just as valuable as the person who can write you a manifesto.

If we know we should collaborate, why don’t we?

Let’s face it – collaboration is hard. It takes time, willingness and trust. It needs process and rules. It doesn’t just magically happen, even if you do change your seating plan every six months.

And when I talk about lack of collaboration, I’m not talking just between agencies, I’m talking within the agency itself – between departments, teams and even individuals.

Although there are many reasons why we don’t collaborate (beyond the mere fact that it’s hard), there is one that restricts more than any other. It’s dangerous and can be found at any level, from the agency attitude right down to the individual creative:

It is the perceived ownership of an idea.

Yes, I understand the importance of protecting a well-crafted, well-executed and effective piece of work. Agencies build fame and attract new clients with awards, creative departments build notoriety and attract better talent, and creative teams build their portfolio for leverage and promotion.

But if you guard all of your ideas, working on them alone and in isolation, they won’t get the chance to change and morph and grow into something you never expected when you first set out.

This unwillingness and reluctance to allow other people, let alone other agencies, into the idea development process is increasingly hampering our ability to produce work that real people care about.

So how do we encourage collaboration?

Firstly, there are some individual traits we can work on to make sure we’re open to collaborate. A lack of confidence in what you think you can contribute is common – have you ever been too nervous/scared/worried to put your hand up in a meeting when you don’t know something? Stop that. Be as confident in the things you don’t know as the things you do.

Saying that, there is such a thing as overconfidence. It’s fair to assume that the person who thinks they already know the answer is probably not going to be the one to invite another opinion. They don’t care what anyone else might know, or what experience they might have – to them it’s a waste of their time, so they stop listening altogether. (Don’t worry, they won’t be reading this. They’re too busy telling other people what they think.)

But beyond just these individual traits, a deeper issue lies in the way the agency process works. The traditional creative agency process used to be simple: the work merely passed from department to department, from agency to agency. This waterfall approach is no longer viable if we want to encourage true collaboration and make all this new, exciting stuff. So we need to change it.

At Wieden+Kennedy, we’re always experimenting and playing, never afraid of asking awkward and probing questions. Questions like: "what happens if we don’t start with a client brief?", "what happens if we don’t know where this idea will take us?", "what happens if we just make something quickly and release it?" and ultimately: "what happens if we open up our creative process and our doors to all sorts of different people/collectives/companies and just do stuff?" And by starting with these questions, we’re getting to some pretty interesting places.

Good things happen when we collaborate

So be confident (but not a know-it-all), be open, put your ego aside and push your process by questioning how you do everything – at an individual, departmental and agency level. Trust me on this: collaboration will only make your stuff better, not detract from your individual glory.

Rob Meldrum is director of experience architecture at Wieden+Kennedy and a member of the IPA's Brand Tech Group which provides an industry view on the impact technology is having on brands, consumers and agencies

Get The Drum Newsletter

Build your marketing knowledge by choosing from daily news bulletins or a weekly special.