Agencies sell the value of their expertise to companies, convincing them that by hiring an agency they can meet their objectives and fill their talent gap without losing focus on what they do best — running their business.
Hiring a specialist company that is strong where you’re weak is a no brainer for any company that values agility and scalable growth.
Yet, when we identify talent gaps in our own agency, our pride causes us to have an aversion to working with other agencies that can fill our weak points. When an inbound marketing agency is weak in web design, the agency defaults to hiring someone, not working with a design firm that understands inbound marketing.
For too long, agencies have instinctively added services as the quickest way to grow (or retain clients) without thinking of how it impacts their perceived value to clients. Honestly consider whether or not pursuing a “full service agency” structure is the right direction for your agency.
Will it differentiate or dilute your brand?
The wider you go, the less depth you inevitably have. It’s up to every agency to decide how they want to market themselves. But it’s my opinion that the most desirable brands seek specialists rather than “full service” in today’s market.
A viable alternative to hiring more people when you have a talent gap is to collaborate with an agency who expertly fills that gap. It’s more reliable and scalable, and it keeps your team focused on doing what they do best. Healthy collaboration is important for agencies who want to win the best clients and deliver truly remarkable projects.
Working with other agencies does require a specific skill set, so to get you started on the right path, here are nine tips for forming strong and successful agency partnerships.
1) Find the Right Fit
You can’t match a Geo Metro chassis to a Corvette engine. Don’t make the mistake of aligning with just any agency. Instead, fully vet every agency, and make sure the work each does best is exactly the type of work you need.
Make sure you agree with a agency’s purpose, vision, and core values. Partner with agencies who are like-minded when it comes to serving your customer. Not every agency will be as customer-centric as you are. Some are only in it for the money, cutting corners to make higher margins. If you feel like an agency is a risk, stop the relationship immediately.
The CEOs of each agency should have time for multiple meetings, masterminding everything prior to any formal partnerships or collaborations. It’s a good idea to take on a small project first, perhaps even something internal, so you’re not putting your customers on the line if the other agency doesn’t deliver.
2) Require 100% Transparency
You should have the right to know whether a project is on-schedule and on-budget. If the customer has given the other agency any negative comments, you need to know about it immediately. In a partnership, your name is on the line as much as the other agency. Protect your reputation.
In collaborations, both agencies are intimately tied to the success of the project. Both should work with ultimate honesty and transparency with each other.
This also goes for pricing.
You should know how much they’ll charge the customer before you introduce them to the client. You’ll look foolish if you and the customer are discussing a project that will cost $20,000 but the agency partner is working on a quote that is in the $50,000 range.
3) Don’t Force the Relationship
If the agency you want to work with is too expensive, don’t force the relationship. Instead, consider a second agency.
You shouldn’t force higher budgets on your customers than they are comfortable with, nor should you ask agencies to produce lower quality work just to win the contract. It’s in everyone’s best interest to partner with an agency that shares the same vision for the project.
4) Don’t Choose a Partnership for Selfish Reasons
A successful partnership isn’t about how much you make from the deal. The choice to engage in a partnership with another agency should be about how much value the collaboration brings to the customer. If both agencies are in agreement on providing value, you’ll both experience success. The best part? The client will be happy with the results.
5) Avoid White-Label Relationships
If an agency approaches you with a project, make sure to gather your own requirements. You should never take project requirements through a third party. It’s a recipe for disaster.
You should be able to interact directly with the client. If you want to deliver your best work and you want them to be 100% satisfied with the project, you need to details about the project directly from the client.
Conversely, you should avoid bringing in agencies in a white-label relationship. It makes you look like you’re shipping work offshore, and it ultimately cheapens your brand. Instead, seek out agencies you can be proud to work alongside, and be transparent about it.
6) Don’t Be Difficult to Work With
It seems like some people strain to make everything as difficult and complex as possible. If you can’t get both agencies on the same page, your collaboration will be a train wreck.
At Lean Labs, we do our best to simplify the relationship. We even created a menu of services, including pricing information, for other agencies called our Agency Project Playbook. When our partners need our specialized expertise, they can quickly find everything we expertly deliver and how much it’ll cost.
When you consider teaming with another agency, ask them to help simplify your role in selling them to the client. They should be able to provide you a menu of services and a clear, easy-to-understand pricing structure.
7) Be Accessible
If you’re going to foster healthy partnerships, you need to foster healthy relationships. That means, you need to be present for both your customers and your partner agencies.
You’ll need to be involved as a project stakeholder in the entire collaboration. You should be able to see project assets, such as mockups, and comment on deliverables during the decision process. Let the other agency team do their jobs, but maintain a collaborative presence — and a voice — in the project.
8) Have a Comprehensive Vetting Process
If you’ve never partnered with a particular agency, no matter how much you like the team, put it through a vetting process. Get references, and talk to its customers to find how they feel about the agency. Ask for New Promoter Score (NPS) data. In short, get as much information on the agency’s performance as you can before exploring a partnership opportunity.
Are you willing to work with someone who isn’t 100% dedicated to, and successful at, satisfying customers?
Finally, find out how they deal with problems with budget, time frame, revisions, and disagreements. In a partnership, when it comes to customer service, you need to both march to the same beat. The agency’s leadership may not approach problems or setbacks the same way you do. Make sure you’re in agreement on how to handle any setbacks.
9) Have An Escape Plan at All Times
This is as important, if not more important, than any other element of the partnership: The Exit Plan.
You should agree with each agency partner and have clear plans on how to get out of the partnership if it isn’t working out. This shouldn’t be a soap opera on the client’s dime. Instead, each agency should be aware that not all partnerships are going to work, nor are they all going to provide value for the customer. In those instances, there should be a clear plan for mutual termination of the partnership.
Smart Partnerships Can Mean Higher Margins
Agencies who know their strengths and bring in other agencies in areas they are weak are seeing the most success. Being able to focus on what you do best and finding a partner you can trust to do the rest, creates confidence, happier clients, and better reputations. As the primary agency, you can deliver customers, meaning the partner agency doesn’t have any acquisition costs for the new business.
Some agencies will provide your clients with discounts or even give your agency a kickback for the new business. If you can set up your collaboration right, you may discover higher margins and higher quality deliverables for the client.
Don’t be afraid to collaborate with other agencies. Just be cautious, and only enter into relationships where everyone’s main focus is creating amazing results for the customer -- that's the goal of any project.
Originally published Oct 23, 2014 5:00:27 AM, updated July 28 2017