Read Partnering with Agencies: Opportunities to Create Value (Part 2)

Working with outside creative partners is often an appropriate and effective strategy for in-house teams when tasked with creating certain types of deliverables and services for their clients. Unfortunately many in-house teams default to a defensive posture when the topic of outside agencies comes up. The assumption is that external vendors are out to at worst, discredit in-house teams and at best, to marginalize them. While this may be true at times, adopting an oppositional stance or playing the victim card does nothing to improve your or your team's stature or ability to alter the dynamic and you forfeit tremendous opportunities to add value when working with external partners.

The fact of the matter is that ad agencies, design firms and specialty production houses are or should be an essential part of your corporate creative services mix. Your job is to manage them in a way that best leverages the value that they can bring as well as your team's contributions to the partnership.

In order to do that you need to define your role, the vendor's role and even your client's role when engaging outside resources. Simply put, your role will be: consultant, liaison, project owner, subcontractor, brand steward and/or facilitator depending on the level of your engagement.

Your partners' (the vendors) roles will vary depending on both their and your capabilities and expertise, cost constraints, project schedules and scope. They may provide market research, marketing strategy, high-level execution and/or tactical execution.

Finally, the level of your clients' involvement will rest on their trust in you and the partner/vendor, their level of expertise and their managers' expectations.

The other key determinant of your success in managing this partnership is your ability to set up and nurture the collaboration between you, your partners and your clients. Deftly navigating both the soft and hard aspects of these relationships is critical and should not be ignored or avoided.

Hard tactics include careful crafting of SOWs (statements of work, also referred to as scope of work or project scope), SLAs (service level agreements), creative or project briefs, legal contracts (usually handled by Procurement) and lines of communication.

The soft strategies of establishing personal relationships and rapport with all stakeholders, gaining trust and addressing concerns as they arise quickly and effectively will ensure that even as project roadblocks occur (which they surely will) you'll be able to resolve them as a team and avoid finger pointing which only discredits and dis-empowers all involved.

I'll go into more detail on roles and managing relationships in future posts. For now, I'll briefly cover what you need to assess at the very beginning of a partnership before moving forward.

There are specific circumstances when you should engage outside vendors. They include: spikes in workload, projects or portions of projects that fall outside of your team's expertise, team burnout or lack of objectivity and the need for a broader industry or creative perspective.

Hopefully your and your clients' rationales for engaging external groups are aligned. There may be times, however, when your clients have other motives that may conflict with your organization's best interests. These might be the cover of a lack of transparency and a desire to avoid accountability, the lure of business lunches and other entertainment perks, a bias against in-house teams and finally the opportunity to establish connections that may benefit a client's future career prospects. If you encounter this challenge the most productive tactic is to work hard at establishing trust with these clients by both engaging them socially and seeking small pilot projects to establish your team's credibility with them. As a last resort you can and should escalate concerns either to your management team or Procurement.

More to come in the next installment.