Is It Ethical for You to Sub-Contract From Another Agency?

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Rebecca Caroe
Rebecca Caroe



partnershipHave you had the frustration of reading a brief from a prospective client only to realize that your agency does not have all the skills needed to fulfill the job?

For years, above-the-line agencies have sub-contracted production and artworking to smaller firms because of the low profitability for that work. But few brands have complained as long as the right ad ran at the right time in the correct format.

“Partnering with specialists’ skills is, and always has been, good agency practice,” Colin Wilson-Brown of said. “No agency can have all the skills needed by all its clients – particularly in production.”

The plethora of new specializations, particularly in digital, means that few agencies have all the skills in-house for a big brand brief. Many briefs are very specific about the requirements; this sends agencies scrambling to find a partner agency, a freelancer or a sub-contractor to join the team so that they can bid on the pitch. Chuck Meyst of calls this “a rather common practice…to establish ‘strategic alliances’ to ‘fill in the dance card.’ Whatever you like to call it, partnering with specialist skills is and always has been good agency practice. No agency can have all the skills needed by all its clients.”

How to Find a Sub-Contractor or Partner Agency

It has been difficult to find any site where agencies can find collaborators. It seems that personal networking is the preferred introductory route in U.S., UK and Australia — three large markets for creative agency services.

Lee McKnight Jr., director of business development at RSW/US, agrees: “In my experience at least, it’s pure networking. You’ll have the added awareness that the handful of crowdsourcing agencies have created in certain cities for freelancers, but otherwise, it’s all networking as far as I know.”

What Can Agency Principals Do?

Get out and build your own list of potential collaboration agencies in your city. Research the best targets, approach them and be ready with a short, sharp text about whether they keep a list of specialist sub-contractors and how to get considered for inclusion.

Darren Woolley, managing director of Trinity P3, told us, “There are a number of people who manage these lists: creative directors and the creative department, production managers and the studio manager, and often there is no single source of information.”

Follow through in the same way that you’d pursue a new brand manager – get a chemistry meeting where you can present your portfolio or show reel. And then nurture them like crazy.

What Are the Pitfalls?

There are three main areas where a sub-contracting agency is putting their business at greater risk than the firm giving out the work.

The first is managing the client relationship. Because the superior agency owns the client relationship, the sub-contractor has to trust both its honesty and ability to retain the client’s business.

The second pitfall is that as the sub-contractor, you cannot claim the client work on your agency credentials or portfolio. This is probably easy to overcome if you agree up front that you have the right to be associated with the job. However, it can impact the first pitfall — trust — as well because if the other agency wants you to remain anonymous, it undermines the superior agency’s credibility with the client.

McKnight emphasizes establishing clarity for role assignments and whether the sub-contracting agency is named to the client or not. “It’s key to discuss up front who gets credit for what and how that will be handled. We’ve talked to agencies that were initially OK being a seamless part of the other agency, but after several high-profile projects, they decided they wanted to do it on their own. They then found themselves not being able to reference their work as case studies or on their websites.”

The third pitfall comes about during a competitive pitch when the same freelancer or sub-contractor does work for more than one firm who’s pitching the brand. Woolley has seen this happen: “It is a bad practice when agencies call in sub-contractors during a pitch to help them win the business. In some circumstances, the agency wins the business without revealing the work was done by sub-contractors, and the client never gets the same quality of creative work again. This is clearly misleading and deceptive in the pitch process as the client is trying to determine the quality of the agency, not the quality of its sub-contractors.

What about you? Is this a new business technique that you’ve used with success? Will you do more sub-contracting in 2013?

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