Getting the Best out of Your AgencyBy Joe Walsh
September 4, 2012
Let’s begin at the end.
Client A works with an agency and gets great work. Goals accomplished. Kudos roll in. Fists pump. Nice!
Client B works with the same team within the agency and the creative work product is good—an improvement over the existing approach—but it’s not as great as all hoped from the start.
How does that happen? Great question.
Recently, we sat down with our account executives, designers and writers to talk through the answer. First, we accepted and tabled the assumption that everyone involved had the courage and will to do something wonderfully unique. No one sets out to do the ordinary. Then, we all agreed that the difference between good and great often lies in the strength of the relationship and effectiveness of communications between agency and client. What follows are ten ideas surrounding relationships and communication that we hope help you get the best out of your agency.
1. Think partnership and try to avoid the V-word. Treat your agency as partners and members of your team. It may sound like semantics, but calling your agency a vendor is counterproductive and akin to name-calling. Treating them like a vendor and telling them what to do can be worse. Trust and guide your agency as you would your colleagues. Great agency/client relationships are based on mutual respect of intelligence and expertise. Building the spirit of partnership at the start of the project is critical. When both “sides” come together—ideally, in person—they become jointly vested in the best outcome and begin to gel as one team.
2. Share as much information as you can and communicate goals clearly.Your agency or outside creative partner can do a better job if they understand your business completely. Tell them the good, the bad and the ugly. Immerse them in your world. If you have musts and no-no’s, state them clearly and share them early on. If you have assumptions about the creative or other elements of the project, air them out. Probe your agency for their assumptions. Agree to what’s being delivered and why. The more everyone understands in advance, the more prepared all are to deliver against expectations.
3. Provide as much access to the product as possible to enrich understanding (especially when the product is your people). If your agency is helping you sell soap or beer, the product can be sampled with ease and the agency can get a sense of the benefits delivered directly. They’ll need the same access to front line professionals in your organization to do a great job. Perhaps your people have been interviewed before and you don’t wish to put them through interviews with outsiders again, but reading someone’s bio or practice description is vastly different than having a conversation with them. Conversations give a sense of how your “product” performs—what they are like, not just what they do and for whom. Leave time and budget to do this important part of creative discovery.
4. Try to put first things first. It’s easier said than done, but it helps to prioritize, plan and execute creative projects based on importance and urgency, especially when you have competing needs. This will help all involved—agency and client—preserve their sanity and increase their focus. If there’s too much to do and not enough time to do it, get practical and be mutually flexible about deliveries. Example: “We have these 5 things to get done. 1 and 2 are very urgent and most important. What kind of timeline could we all work on for 3, 4 and 5 that ensures 1 and 2 are being done exceptionally well?”
5. Provide adequate time for creative development, but keep your agency slightly winded. The creative process is not easy or fast. In fact, it is sensitive and fragile. Rushing often leads to mistakes and oversights. Talk openly at the start with your partner about the amount of time needed to go from discovery to concept presentation. Respect time (and budget) estimates. Come to mutual agreement in advance about presentation targets as they tend to drive to-do lists and attention within agencies. Important note: never allow too much time for concept development—too much time can be as much of a risk as too little.
6. Involve all key decision-makers from the beginning, but don’t let consensus slow you down or fail you. Great creative dies when it gets walked down the hall. Compromises water down great ideas. Yes, committees are an important part of the process—they facilitate buy-in, neutralize naysayers and boost the enthusiasm of the already committed. But remember, great creative is not a democratic process. Great creative is a product of smart leadership and bold and timely decision-making (which, by the way, often leads to on-time and under budget creative projects).
7. Do not sit on decisions for weeks or months on end. Your agency is full of business people, too. They’ll understand that business realities sometimes call for projects to be put on a slower burn. But note that long intervals can often amount to project restarts. Momentum is a precious thing. Once a creative project is on life support, it inevitably costs more, loses its energy and becomes dated.
8. Provide constructive criticism: explain what works and why. The least productive thing you can tell your agency is “I don’t like it.” Dig deeper with your feedback. One client of note has a particularly effective technique, in this case responding to initial web design concepts. They organized their thoughts into what is working and why and what is not working and why not. When it’s not about like vs. dislike, egos aren’t bruised and creative problem-solving juices are engaged. When left brains help right brains understand “why,” two hemispheres of talent work in concert.
9. Understand the difference between conceptual design and production design. We’ll pull out the house analogy here. An architect’s initial renderings for the new or remodeled home are quite different from the final builder’s plans or the finished product. Think of conceptual design as broad strokes. Initially, focus feedback there instead of on a particular image or headline. Example: “I really like the overall look. I now realize we have a lot of new copy to write and photos to arrange for, but we’re off to a great start.” Production design accommodates and addresses all of those vital details.
10. Be honest, like a good friend. Agencies understand that sometimes you won’t be happy with your creative or team members or process or service. It’s important for you to be candid and direct about dissatisfaction. Treat your agency like a friend—be straight with them, but even-toned, if possible. And don’t wait for your partner to ask. Conversely, when you’re happy, please be sure to say so. Even the most accomplished performers warm to positive reinforcement, like Sally Fields accepting the Oscar: “you like me, you really, really like me!”