4 Solutions to the Growing Challenge of Cross-Agency Collaboration

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There’s No “I” in “Clusterfuck”

Clients are moving away from a single-agency-for-everything model and toward a more team-based approach—one in which many agencies provide specific services, all of which need to fit together to form a single message to a consumer. This creates a new sort of challenge for everyone involved, both client and agency. And it ain’t necessarily easy or clear how this new multi-agency world should or could operate. As we all navigate today’s new industry order, there is an overwhelming pressure to confront: collaboration.

The Pressure Against Agency Collaboration

Let’s address the mastodon in the room: Agencies don’t necessarily want to collaborate.

Call it ego or (more rationally) a concern about creative integrity, but agencies tend to like having control over the work that is being done for a client. It makes us uncomfortable to think that the digital agency is going to rework the TV assets so that the social agency can create a post. It worries us that an idea is going to be made into something else, by someone else.

We also have worked so hard to move from being vendors to being partners. The introduction of another agency to a project means we have to worry that they will have the client’s ear. That they will tell them something brilliant, which will turn the campaign around. That they will take our seat at the table and enjoy the tasty meals such a spot affords. When so much of your life is competition (and that’s what advertising is, in many ways: getting ahead of others), it is hard to look at another company and think “friend!”

It is from this inherent discomfort that fear arises. And no good work has ever come from a place of fear.

Let’s Make it Better

Allow me to humble-brag for a moment: I just finished the first round of a huge project with a tight timeline, a radically new product (in an untested category), an ambitious client and…three agencies and a production studio. It went incredibly well.

The project was for Kuri, a home robot made by Mayfield Robotics that launched at CES. The particulars of the robot and the campaign are not important today. What matters is that all agencies were brought together and—because the ask was big and the time was short—there was an extraordinarily small amount of nonsense. We had no choice but to get to work.

As hard as we worked, though, at some point I did have the presence of mind to realize that “this seems to be going pretty damn good.” So, within my notes and briefs, I began writing down a few of the things that seemed to be the ingredients of a good and successful multi-agency collaboration. I share those notes now, with you all:

Note 1: It all starts with the client

The success of any project hinges on the client. He or she must provide a good brief and clear feedback. The client should be honest about expectations and willing to share all information. The client should always strive to create a positive environment around the project, where agencies know what their roles are and how hand-offs must happen. The client has to be the conductor of an orchestra, not the delegator of tasks.

Note 2: Have a simple brief and share it early

There should be one agency that is assigned the task of writing the creative brief. Other groups should have the chance to provide input and direction. But, for many teams to work both concurrently and in concert, there needs to be one brief from one author. That brief, however, must be immediately shared and agreed to and believed in. Every agency is there because it excels at a particular discipline. With a shared brief, every team can go back to their office and do their work, but toward a common goal.

Note 3: Be Ready to change the plan

The (quote/unquote) right way to set up a collaborative environment is to clearly assign roles and responsibilities, so that everyone knows what he or she is doing, and so everyone else knows what to expect. It should be definitively written out, broadly shared, and closely followed until you decide that it isn’t right and you throw the stupid thing out the window. Sometimes roles and responsibilities need to shift. Agency One is getting too busy to deliver or Agency Two has a better idea or the perfect resource. Don’t be overly precious about who does what.

Which bring us to the final note:

Note 4: Remember that we all, really, have the exact same job

It’s a mistake to think that one agency has the job of developing the brand, another agency has the job of placing the media, and yet-another-agency has the job of measuring results. Screw that. Once the team comes together, you all need to realize that you all have exactly the same job. For us it was “launch the product.” For other teams it may be “increase sales” or “introduce the brand.”

That, ultimately, is the key to collaboration. You are co-laboring. You are working together. You all share the exact same goal and have the same dream. You value the same things. If you see that there is something bigger and more exciting than just the task at hand, you will naturally fall into a new pattern of blending your efforts and doing something that you never, ever could have done alone.

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