Choosing the Right Partner: The Client-Agency Relationship

Searching for a new digital agency is a lot like searching for a mate – you spend a lot of time seeing other people (the request for proposal process), you eventually narrow it down to a handful of prospects (the short list), and eventually you think you’ve found “the one” (the winning agency). After much wooing and negotiation, you agree to move in together (onboarding), and the real “getting to know each other” officially begins (the client-agency “relationship”).

The first couple of months are usually pretty blissful – both parties are filled with lots of hope and positivity about the exciting adventures (programs/tactics) to come. But then you inevitably find out things that you didn’t know before, that you may not like. Things get a bit bumpy; you start to become disenfranchised with your partner. Then gradually everything starts to unravel – all of a sudden a year has gone by and you’re threatening to break up if they (your agency) don’t get their act together!

It doesn’t have to be this way! There is a way to maintain that honeymoon period indefinitely. And it starts with choosing the right partner in the first place. It’s a huge investment to onboard a new agency, so you want to make sure that the agency you choose is going to work out in the long term.

Let’s explore the top three considerations when choosing a partner:

Consideration No. 1: Make sure the agency’s skills closely align to your needs.

  • Relationship buster. While this may seem obvious, often client-agency relationships fail because there is a mismatch between client needs and agency competencies. Agencies do a good job of downplaying their weaknesses and selling their strengths, so sometimes clients receive a biased representation of an agency’s capabilities. Because of this sell job, clients can also become enamored by a specific strength that isn’t even a top priority for them.
  • Relationship saver. Make sure you have a clear understanding of what you need/what you’re looking for in an agency, and consistently apply that as a filter when evaluating potential partners. It’s critical that you choose an agency based on a realistic evaluation of your needs and whether their core competencies align with these. If you’re looking for a digital agency that can offer innovative solutions to engage your audience, be careful not to let yourself get wooed by a flashy creative presentation unless you’re sure they have the chops to deliver on the technology side of things. Alternatively, if you already have a strong IT shop in-house and what you really need is a strong strategic and creative shop, you better be sure they can bring their A-game as it relates to creative.

Consideration No. 2: Make sure the agency has the proven ability to deliver.

  • Relationship buster. Clients sometimes underestimate the importance of delivery in digital programs. It’s easy to get distracted by the cutting-edge solutions and fail to consider whether these programs can realistically be deployed on time, on budget, and at a high-quality level.
  • Relationship saver. Make sure you verify agencies’ track records in deploying similar solutions in a timely and efficient manner. Ideally they should be able to provide case studies of similar work successfully delivered for other clients. They should be able to clearly articulate their process for taking a high-level solution/strategy to detailed tactical implementation plans. Strong project management competence is critical to ensure projects are delivered within budget and timelines. They should also be able to demonstrate that they have sufficient resources in place to deliver on multiple concurrent work streams.

Consideration No. 3: Make sure the agency can “play well with others.”

  • Relationship buster. Most clients have multiple agency partners – typically at least a creative/offline agency and a media agency in addition to their digital agency. Clients sometimes take for granted that all partners will work together toward a common goal; that integration will naturally take place. However, some agencies tend toward a protective or even combative nature when working with other agencies, creating a host of problems when interdependencies are present between both agencies’ initiatives.
  • Relationship saver. Prospective partners need to be able to demonstrate the ability to play well with others in the sandbox. Your agency should be able to point to specific examples of how they have worked with other agency partners in a harmonious and mutually beneficial way. Ideally they can demonstrate the ability to take a leadership role in coordinating cross-agency collaboration and integration. They should have an established process for helping to define and document roles and responsibilities between agency partners in order to come to alignment and consensus on “who does what.”

Of course, there are many other factors to take into consideration when choosing a new digital agency partner, but avoiding the pitfalls above should increase your chances of a long and successful union. Happy hunting!

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