iMedia Connection

5 ways to fix the broken agency partnership model

Adam Kleinberg

The theme of this year's iMedia Agency Summit was "Partnership: The New Agency Value." That's a big indicator of a major shift for our industry.

But it should come as no surprise. The entire business world has seen a shift to a collaborative economy. Whether it's crowdsourcing, outsourcing, in-sourcing, or shroud-sourcing, businesses across the globe are adopting new models of getting work done.

5 ways to fix the broken agency partnership model

In his book, Wikinomics, Don Tapscott writes:

"Due to deep changes in technology, demographics, business, the economy, and the world, we are entering a new age where people participate in the economy like never before. This new participation has reached a tipping point where new forms of mass collaboration are changing how goods and services are invented, produced, marketed, and distributed on a global basis. The change presents far-reaching opportunities for every company and for every person who gets connected."

So here we are in Agencyland, tasked with catching up with the rest of the world. We need to collaborate.

And we suck at it.

The perception of our industry is that agencies can't form effective partnerships. We can't work together. We are all money-hungry sharks. We throw each other under the bus every chance we get. We don't communicate. We don't collaborate.

That doesn't have to be true. We partner with technology vendors, publishers, production teams, and research firms every day. When I started my agency 11 years ago, practically all we did for the first couple of years was partner with larger agencies. And we were good at it. Today, we are one of those larger agencies, and we still find ourselves working within an ecosystem of partnerships more often than not.

How did we do it? Here are five ways.

Strategy first, then assignments

Many brands are seeking ways to leverage multiple agencies to handle their business. We just worked on a project for a major tech company that had Traction and two other agencies partnering to execute its marketing for the year.

The client doled out assignments. In this instance, we were not the lead agency. We were tasked with the social strategy, including a Facebook application. The lead agency for the effort was tasked by the client with building an extensive campaign microsite. The problem was that because the lead agency was tasked with doing the microsite, there had to be a microsite.

But strategically, having a microsite made no sense. And it wasn't successful.

Whether you are a client trying to manage multiple agency partners or an agency trying to deliver successful work for a client in collaboration with your partners, work through your strategy first. Make sure the entire team understands it and where they fit into it.

Asking the right questions at the wrong time just might be too late.

Relationships matter

For a decade, we've partnered with the same two media agencies over and over again. Our collaboration is seamless. They are like an extension of our team. Together, we deliver results.

The reason these partnerships work is that my people know their people. We understand their quirks -- and they know ours. We understand their strengths and weaknesses, their philosophies and styles. We even know their kids' names.

The result is that our teams work together like one team.

When teams are strangers, that workflow is hard to achieve. The weekly collaboration meeting becomes a project manager reading a status report into the phone. Partnership runs the risk of becoming a chore, not an opportunity.

That said, sometimes the need arises for a new partner. You might have to partner with someone new. But take the time to understand the culture of the group you'll be working with. As a leader of your organization, think of yourself as a matchmaker for your people. Compatibility is the precursor to a successful relationship.

At least set the table for success.

Process alignment

A lot of ad shops dangle digital ideas in front their clients and just figure they will outsource production if the client bites.

But those shops work with their clients in a specific way. They have contracts with their clients that are structured a certain way. At the same time, the best production shops have a very specific way of conducting their own business.

They might be agile. Lean. Waterfall. Whatever. Each of those processes has significant impact on the client's experience, billing structure, how delivery happens, and when delivery happens.

If those ways of doing business aren't in alignment, the agency in between could get screwed. It's so critical to understand exactly how your partners work and how that will affect how you work together.

If you manage your client's expectations from the outset, you look strategic. If you try to manage them after the fact, you look like a moron.

Get contracts in order -- before you win the business

This might sound like something that shouldn't be a problem. Sometimes it isn't. But sometimes it is.

About five years ago, my agency -- which solely focused on strategy and creative at the time -- brought in a media agency to pitch a multi-million-dollar account. We won.

Negotiating the client contract actually was a breeze. But we didn't take the time to iron out the details of our contract with the media agency beforehand, and unfortunately, there was an issue that the lawyers were in dispute about. It took them two weeks to figure it out.

Sure, lawyers squabble for a living. But fighting among partners is not the best way to start a client relationship. You can be sure I never made that mistake again.

Creative briefing: Follow the leader

When there are alternate agencies driving a campaign, it's often unclear where the line is in terms of brand standards, messaging, and even strategy. Which agency is in charge? What is mandatory? Does everyone understand the strategy?

A couple of years ago, we were the agency of record for a consumer electronics company that was launching a new product. We managed the brand strategy, the online work, the offline work, the social media, the website, the retail presence -- we even named the product.

Except there was one thing the client wanted to handle directly: events. Instead of having us hire an event marketing company, the client wanted to work with that company directly.

We joined the client in briefing this partner. We walked its team members through the strategy. We showed them the creative. We told them the client wanted event ideas that were integrated into all of the other efforts the brand was doing.

The event marketing company came back with three ideas -- that had nothing to do with anything we showed them. On their own, they could have been great ideas. But they weren't on their own.

The client fired the company.

Adam Kleinberg is CEO of Traction.

On Twitter? Follow Kleinberg at @adamkleinberg. iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Closeup picture of businesspeople shaking hands" image via Shutterstock.