Agency partnerships are of great value to both internal and external agencies, and most importantly, to the businesses they serve. Most organizations need a mix of internal and external agency partners to best meet both their long-term and short-term goals. Developing a strong relationship between your agencies can bring enormous benefits to a business in terms of scalability, growth, and value. The partnership will also allow creativity to flourish with the introduction of different ways of thinking about and approaching solutions.
Success in agency partnerships is about making connections and building relationships based on mutual respect. Every relationship has value. Realize that you each bring something unique to the table that will benefit the organization and each other. It can be natural for the in-house agency to feel threatened by external agencies and vice versa, but if the value is understood a relationship will benefit both parties.
Both internal and external agencies run the gamut from offering one or more specific specialized services such as graphic design, digital services, direct mail, video, and/or photography, to name a few, to full-service strategic creative agencies. You may choose to engage with outside agencies to solve for gaps in team expertise, surge staffing when there are spikes in workload, greater objectivity and creative perspective, or for broader industry expertise gathered through leveraging the learnings of working with a variety of clients and businesses.
There is no one better than an in-house agency when it comes to brand knowledge, governance, and guidelines. Simply being part of the company day-to-day allows an internal agency to build deep company, product, and service knowledge. The internal team sees how changes in the marketplace affect the business as they happen and can be nimble to shift and address immediate needs typically faster and more easily than anyone outside the company.
Consider the power and depth of service that can be offered by combining both internal and external agency expertise!
Best practices in working together include developing a mutually beneficial Service Level Agreement that clearly identifies the rules of engagement for working together. This may outline the areas of responsibility and the approach to approvals, creative authority, communication vehicles and cadence, how files are named and shared, to name a few things. Ensure you give and receive feedback on a regular basis and ensure there is an annual agency review. The agency should know the scorecard with key performance indicators for such a review at the start of the relationship. Below are a few key items to remember when building internal and external agency relationships.
Understand each other's strengths and weaknesses. Look for partnership opportunities.
Relationships are two-sided, and it's important that both parties participate in relationship development. Remember that you are working toward a common goal - the success of the organization through a quality creative product. In providing creative services to an organization, both the internal and external agencies are playing in the same sandbox so recognizing the unique value you each bring and sharing all relevant, related work, guidelines, art files and information is critical to success. When setting up an agency working relationship, it's important to clearly articulate this expectation as openness and sharing is a two-way street.
Internal agencies often hold the knowledge and agility cards. They are experts in the brand as well as company, product, and historical knowledge. They know the players and how to get things done within the business and can complete work on short notice. External agencies often provide perspective, as well as a skillset that compliments those of the internal agency. External agencies are usually at the cutting edge of trends. You can immediately see where working together will be of benefit to both and bring greater results.
Step in to help when you can. Answer the questions that aren't asked that may be of obvious importance to you, but your agency partner may not know to ask. Likewise, graciously accept the help and information given to you.
Get to know one another through both work and play. Beyond a project level, create opportunities to get to know one another on a personal level. Enjoy lunch or a virtual social event. Celebrate your successes together.
Be a team player. Be honest and build trust. Resolve issues quickly, together.
When working with an agency, set clear expectations. Clarify roles, be clear about responsibilities and how the agency is positioned with the client. Importantly, give credit where credit is due. Knowing you are better together and acknowledging publicly that success is because of all involved will immediately break down barriers and help develop trust. I once worked with an individual whose first reaction to praise was something like: "It takes a team effort. I can't do any of this alone." That response not only raised awareness of the internal/external team but worked to solidify trust and respect.
We all make mistakes. How we acknowledge and handle mistakes separates those who are good at cementing relationships from those who aren't. Own your mistakes. Take responsibility. When mistakes get made, a customer gets angry, or a vendor complains, accept the criticism and make it right. This is not a time for pointing fingers but rather to rally together to meet the business needs. Talk through and learn from the experience.
Collaborate. Build on your strengths.
Finally, great agency relationships are those where you have each other's back. You watch out for one another, work together, stick up for one another, collaborate and make each other stronger. As creative teams, we are in it together, learning from each other. No one skill or competency is more important than another; it's the collective whole that adds the most value and the most fun.
Be sure to give the relationship care and attention. Often this takes the form of an agency management position that works with internal customers to identify appropriate agency resources. Building the agency relationship should be a creative leadership goal and responsibility as well.
Internal and external agencies can see each other as a threat or an opportunity. An entity that will take away business or perhaps bring in more. Embracing the full potential of a relationship, recognizing that you are stronger together and adding complimentary value can have a positive long-term, lasting effect not only on the business, but on both the internal and external agencies as well. Realizing the benefits of leveraging internal expertise while gaining the advantages of an external perspective and additional resources can help secure a long-term, mutually beneficial partnership.