Can agencies collaborate successfully? The answer is, sometimes. I’ve seen agency partnerships fail miserably, but I’ve also seen them do magical things.
In most cases, collaboration refers to an even more fractured model than the unfortunate separation of media and creative assignments. Today, a single brand can be serviced by a traditional agency, a media agency, a digital agency, a mobile agency, a social agency, a production agency and a CRM agency.
Like any human relationship, it can be shortsighted and perhaps naïve to throw two or more parties into a room, expect them to play well and deliver groundbreaking results. I think Razorfish got much of this right in their latest Outlook Report, “A Wake Up Call for Collaboration.” On both sides of the house, ideas need to stop being conceived and contained in disciplinary and organizational silos; above versus below the line, traditional versus digital, media versus creative.
Beyond drawing up these rules of engagement, let’s consider the human motivating and de-motivating factors at play. Sometimes, people just don’t click, no matter how well intentioned their efforts. As a last resort, staffing changes can be necessary.
Most agencies “succeed” by growing year-over-year margins and winning awards. But major points are scored just by being able to staff their businesses well, which, because of typical compensation structures, was difficult even outside lean times. So behind agency doors, the pressure is on to score even more incremental funding, all while vying for the next industry trophy.
On the client side, particularly in large enterprises, responsibility for a single brand can fall to leaders across divisions — isn’t that a telling word — with each line of business director held to a unique set of performance measures. There’s a reason that the opposite of integration is disintegration.
With these competing agendas, it’s easy to see how priorities become muddled. It is said that good ideas can come from anywhere, but when “anywhere” is inaccessible because of operating lines or protectionism, we inadvertently hinder the pace and quality of creating ideas.
Reality gets in the way
The tough reality is that operational issues make agency collaborations very difficult. In some cases where agencies have managed to fully collaborate and produce great work, it’s because all stakeholders were compensated on shared KPIs and made success hinge upon the collective and business results — logos and divisions on business cards be damned.
If there’s flexibility in the system, a single client reporting line for agencies helps; all agencies are beholden to the same client organization and corporate imperatives. Agencies have the opportunity to function in a more inclusive, team-like approach, almost creating a new virtual agency in their alignment, drawing minds, experience and resources into a single think tank. Not only can this model spark ideas, but there can also be backend advantages. Overspill work from one shop can be covered by another. Agencies can leverage the output, proprietary tools and relationships that would have otherwise been inaccessible.
Collaboration can work
In one very bold, yet powerfully successful example, a global client of mine took this one step further and mixed up reporting lines across the agencies. I was the global lead at Grey, with regional leads from Bates, Ogilvy, Grey and Digit in different countries, all reporting to me. My creative partner was at Ogilvy Singapore, planning partner at Ogilvy Auckland and media partner at Grey/Mediacom in San Francisco. Their disciplinary teams were, in turn, at different agencies in different countries reporting into them.
And guess what? It made us reach out to each other constantly and turned us into good listeners. It forced us to help each other, share ideas and build on each other’s strengths. We learned from each other, supported each other and celebrated each other’s successes. Our clients marveled at how well we got along and the quality of the work.
Agencies want to be entrusted with the lion’s share of a client’s business. And clients want to entrust their business to an agency that they know and trust. But in cases where a one-agency solution isn’t feasible, a matrixed agency solution can reap big and unexpected benefits.
Agency and client teams should be rewarded for collaborating, but the incentive should not be the reason for collaboration. Done correctly, the collaboration in itself can be a reward. You can call me idealistic, and I’d call myself that too, had I not lived to tell the tale.
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