Last year, I made the switch from working client-side to a creative agency. Having spent most of my career as a buyer of agency services in sectors with complex (and, according to many, boring) product offerings, I was quite nervous to take the leap.
Would my background really bring any value to the agency? Would I be sharp enough to keep up with my colleagues? Would I be hip enough to fit in?
As it turns out, my corporate background and experience of ‘dull’ communications challenges proved to be both a breath of fresh air for my new agency colleagues and a great strength when working with clients. The conversations I’ve had from the agency side of the table have opened my eyes to a whole load of preconceptions I was carrying while ‘client-side’ and plenty of mistakes that I made when managing my agency partners.
Here are five things I wish I had known when I was managing agencies:
1. Not everyone will understand the struggles of stakeholder management.
Have you ever felt like your agency partners are totally oblivious to the struggles you face with getting feedback and sign off from internal stakeholders? It’s probably because they are.
Most agencies are rather flat organisations, consisting of agile teams that work in close-knit pods with clearly defined roles to achieve very specific tasks. If you’ve spent most (or all) of your career in a setting like that, it can be pretty hard to understand the challenging and hierarchical landscape of a big corporation.
This is why you as the client need to take ownership of the project plan. Unless you’re fortunate enough to have someone with a corporate background in your agency team (hi!), it will be up to you to make sure that the project plan really accommodates for your internal review process.
Your agency often just won’t know how long these things can take – but also keep in mind that the agency needs to have enough time to create the deliverables too. A balanced project plan will benefit everyone in the end.
Be the voice of reason and challenge expectations if you can see they’re not realistic for your stakeholders. You’ll be thanked for preserving everyone’s sanity later on.
2. It’s never too early to involve your agency partner.
In complex projects with tight deadlines, try to involve your agency partner as early as possible. And I really mean as early as possible.
Don’t get me wrong, you should definitely take your time to think things over, discuss internally and prepare a great brief. But make sure you give the agency enough time to do their job too.
Even with the clearest of briefs, most agencies will come back with a lot of questions. It’s partly just to make sure they’ve understood what you mean, but it’s also to find out if they might be able to use their experience to help you tackle problems in a new or better way.
What it’s not about, if you’ve got a good agency, is racking up hefty bills. In fact often it’s actually more about keeping costs down while giving you a project you’re proud to have lead.
My advice is to embrace your agency’s ideas nice and early so you get the most out of their expertise – after all that’s a big part of what you’re paying for.
3. Transparency will always pay off (yes, even disclosing your budget).
As a client, I was taught not to disclose too much information at an early stage in the procurement process as it would weaken our negotiation. I understand the logic, and it definitely works if you’re buying office paperclips, but I don’t think it’s applicable for when you’re buying creative services.
For an agency, putting together a proposal without knowing a budget might mean that the sky is the limit in forms of creativity.
This risks putting you, the client, in an awkward position when evaluating several proposals ranging from £5k to £500k. Which one is actually best for your needs and how will you prove that to your stakeholders?
Instead, by giving (at least) an indication of a price point, you will get a fairer comparison of the quality different agencies will be able to deliver for your budget.
4. Good, fast, cheap: You can only pick 2. So choose wisely
In an ideal world, you would always get the highest quality deliverables at the lowest cost with a lightning-fast turnaround. In reality, one will almost always suffer. It’s simply a question of priorities.
Decide which are most important to you before briefing your agencies and you get to choose which 2 you’ll get.
Brief them too late and the best you can hope for is good, fast and expensive!
5. Make sure your agencies genuinely understand your business.
Just because an agency has won a shelf-load of awards doesn’t mean they know what the heck it is you do or how your business works.
I can tell you from having worked with complex product offerings how painful it can be working with suppliers that simply don’t understand what it is you do. Hours of time and energy just get frittered away with explanation after explanation. It’s exhausting!
Find an agency that truly gets you and your business from the off (or at least one smart enough to pick up what you do pretty quickly) and I promise you that decision will pay you back in spades.
The whole point of using an agency is to make your life easier.
Either because they can do something you don’t know how to do yourself, or because they can do something to a really high standard while you’re focussing your time elsewhere.
These are my tips on how to make that happen in a smoother way. If you have questions or want to discuss some of your own horror stories, do reach out either over email or connect with me on LinkedIn.
I’m happy to play agony uncle (or be a shoulder to cry on), and I have plenty more experiences I can share with you too.
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