Time to change it up – making cross agency collaboration work

Collaboration is one of those words you hear a lot at the moment. If you work at an advertising agency then the chances are you will be talking a lot about how to ensure your specialists collaborate well together (for some excellent background on that Harvard Business Review have some great resources here and also from this recent edition)

And you‘ll probably also have been asked by your clients to collaborate with their other agencies, and it’s that subject I’m going to cover here.

As integrated marketing campaigns get more and more complex you can understand why clients are increasingly asking their agencies to collaborate, and relying less and less on a lead agency to develop a “big idea” behind which all the other agencies have to fall in line.

Good collaboration between agencies can also mean that more surprising ideas emerge from unusual places, as the role of serendipity comes in to play in a more fluid and open creative development process. Agencies collaborating well together can avoid slipping into the old habits of developing “messages” and simply using comms channels in concert to deliver those messages as effectively as possible. Instead there is a chance that an idea can be created that delivers value to consumers, creating a communications product, not just simply communicating products (See this ace slide set from Gareth Kay for more on that).

However for all the sensible talk within agencies and with clients about the need to collaborate, there is little talk about HOW to collaborate. I know that we’ve made plenty of mistakes here at Dare and certainly not got it right all the time. So I thought I would share some observations about what I think it takes to collaborate well from some recent experience and it would be great to hear any of your thoughts. Feels to me we need to change up a lot of stuff!

1. Change up the goal of collaborations from just being about building consensus to instead about achieving greatness

“the only rule in collaborations is that one should never strike deals and never compromise” John Berger, The Guardian, April 2011

Unfortunately often people assume that collaboration means being nice to one another all the time and reaching a consensus where there is broad agreement on ideas and activities. Combined with the age-old agency habits and training of being seen to produce the best ideas (more from Edward Boches on that here), the group descends into horse trading, everyone attempting to preserve bits of their idea and simultaneously make everyone else feel comfortable because that’s what good collaborators do! The result is often a Frankenstein’s monster, an unwieldy, complicated and confused idea that makes execution difficult and effectiveness doubtful.

The goal of collaboration should be to use different skills, experience, perspectives and mindsets from different people to arrive at ideas and solutions to problems that working separately those people wouldn’t have reached. Of course it’s important to stick up for yourself and have strong points of view and bring great ideas to bring to the table. But it is better to agree to disagree and move on to something new than cobble stuff together where the end result is an idea that everyone kind of likes but no one loves. I would also argue it is better to contribute to make someone else’s great idea come to life than arrogantly hanging on to your own average one.

2. Change up the role of the client to become the cross agency team’s quarterback

In my experience clients are woefully unwilling to play the role they need to in the cross agency team. Far too many times have I heard senior clients say “we want our agencies to work together” and then just expect everyone to get on with it. But when agencies have different motivations, remuneration agreements, skills and attitudes, it shouldn’t be surprising when they then spend most of their time is spent politicking and figuring out what the hell is going on rather than actually working on developing something interesting together.

Clients in general need to work harder to ensure that the team is working to the same shared vision, that each agency knows what they are expected to contribute, to be clear about where decision making responsibility lies and spend time fostering trust between the individuals in the team by keeping the playing field level and nipping unhelpful behaviour in the bud.

For me the role of client should be to quarterback the team making sure the right people are in the right place and that they are doing the right things rather than acting as lord and master of some squabbling subjects. This also means clients taking a more active role in the idea development process as well, contributing their ideas and sharing ownership of the end product rather than just passing judgement. They should take a stake in the work, rather than simply “buy” it. This implies some big changes to how we currently conceive the client/agency relationship – after all you can hardly fairly lay the blame at the agencies door if the work doesn’t perform if you have played a role in creating it.

3. Change Up remuneration so participants are rewarded for the group’s performance

An associated and massive issue is the way that agencies are currently paid. If you are paid for your agency’s ideas, and paid for the execution of those ideas, it will always be difficult to truly take an objective view and do what is best for the team’s shared objectives because you will always be looking to justify your agency’s existence.

In true collaboration team members need to be able to share their ideas freely and without feeling that they need to sell anything. Sometimes you have to be grown up enough to recognise that someone has had a better idea. And rather than judging success on your individual contribution we instead need to judge success on the ability of the group to create an idea that adds value to customer’s lives. When everyone is in a room together it is hard to imagine your specialism not having a role, but collaboration doesn’t mean that every channel needs to be part of solving every problem.

And that means that clients need to remunerate their agencies in a different way so that people get paid for their contribution to the shared objectives of the team and that the team is rewarded for working well together. And it means agencies need to take a long view of their working relationships and that’s hard in a world where the average CMO is in role for 18 months.

4. Change up working practices and environment to foster and enable collaboration

I think that the other thing that needs more thought than it currently gets is the environment and conditions under which the team is going to work. Again we default to old habits, working behind closed doors in a waterfall style, trying to hit dates to present the work or hold tissue sessions.

Working in a collaborative cross agency team is always going to need to be more flexible and iterative. Often the “flow” of the team is interrupted because there is a client meeting to attend. Of course people need deadlines and there are always going to be stakeholders to manage, but a more flexible approach would help to make sure that team is allowed the space to breathe.

What physical space is the team going to have to work in? What digital tools make sense for everyone to share ideas and work? Are the right personalities involved in the right way to make the most of everyone’s skills? How are disagreements going to be resolved to avoid design by committee? How can we make sure there are different “gears” in the process to ensure time for working together and time for working apart?

It is also important to recognise of importance of T-shapeness in the members of the team. It is always going to be difficult to get somewhere great if the individuals in the team don’t have a deep level of awesomeness in a specific area. And it is an equally big problem if people don’t have a broad enough appreciation of other important disciplines to work well with the other team members. Assembling the right team in the first place is therefore clearly important.

Hopefully anyone who has been involved in one of these collaborative processes would agree that we do need to change up how we do things as the industry adapts to the changing world. In my view cross agency collaboration is a crucial tool that is being poorly used. What do you think? What could make for more effective collaboration between agencies?

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One thought on “Time to change it up – making cross agency collaboration work

  1. Hello I am a student a Kellogg school of management doing a white paper on agency collaboration. Is there anyway we could talk?

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