Flexibility. Sounds like a buzzword, but in the marketing department of a startup, it’s a necessity — especially when it comes to creative talent. In the early stages of a business, needs change quickly. One week you’re neck-deep in branding, and the next you’re on social media and strategy. If you bring those jobs in-house right away, you risk not having enough work for employees long term, and letting people go is hard on you and them. Outsourcing projects to an agency gives you access to the talent — but without all the strings.
Plus, startups often don’t have the budget for a large internal team of seasoned experts. Agencies offer the experience of creatives who have worked on and learned from many brands. Working with an agency is a way of trying on different areas of expertise to see what fits, and I love using agencies to figure out what my next hire should be.
Finding the Right Collaborator
The first step is choosing the right agency. Look at various agencies’ published work and read industry trades to see whether they’ve been featured. You can find out what they’re like to work with by interviewing their clients. Most of all, go with your gut.
I recommend finding an agency that can cover all your needs under one roof. There are amazing shops out there that can tackle your identity, web development, social, and even strategy and customer insights. Though you could hire specialty shops for specific needs, it’s really exhausting to keep them all in sync, and brand cohesion can start to slide. It’s an identity system you’re after — not an identity crisis.
Working with just one agency lets you focus on building a relationship between its people and your people. It allows the agency to understand your company ethos more deeply. That said, realize that no one, not even the best agency, will care more about your business than you do. Nor will you be its sole account. When I ran my agency, Total BS Media, we cared intensely about every client. But working with a brand just isn’t the same as working for a brand. The true passion and energy you need to thrive will come from your in-house team — the people who live and breathe your brand.
But the fact that agencies are a little distanced from your world is actually a good thing. In-house teams sometimes lose sight of realities not within their specific vertical. Because agencies live outside your world, out there in the big picture, they can put projects into a better perspective. In-house teams get pretty invested. And if there are darlings to be killed, sometimes teams need to hear that from an objective source.
Fostering Productive Cohesion
As important as that perspective is, however, there are no guarantees that employees will welcome an outsourced team with open arms. It’s up to you to bring the two parties together. The following are some steps for doing so:
1. Draft a brief. When done right, briefs can provide a wealth of insights on how to not only see a given project through to fruition but also how to align your team and the agency’s team. When deciding what to include in a brief, I keep these three things in mind: decide, guide, and inform.
Decide refers to the major calls made by the top stakeholders. I need to make sure these decisions are clearly communicated to both the internal and external teams.
Guide refers to the direction provided by various SMEs within the organization (research and development, product managers, and so forth). That’s who is giving us the pieces of the story we need to tell compellingly to our customers.
Inform refers to the feedback we’re getting from outside (customers, friends, family, and focus groups). How is our message landing so far?
2. Plot your strategy. Group and prioritize facets of a project. Branding, for example, usually precedes web work. Can your shop handle both and set a consistent voice to carry through print, paid, and social? The goal should be to lay the foundation and then build out — all with a consistent message, no matter where a consumer comes into contact with your brand.
3. Onboard agency workers like regular employees. No, not onboard, as in the HR process. I just mean welcome workers from the outside as part of the family. Help them get to know your people and learn how things work. Bring them into team meetings. Set them up to speak with SMEs. Have IT put them on messaging platforms. Schedule weekly check-ins. All this will establish a sense of shared mission.
Just remember to reassure internal team members that bringing on an agency doesn’t threaten their jobs. Agencies are collaborators, not competitors. They’re helping your company stay around and grow, and clearly, that’s a net benefit for internal job security.
4. Create feedback loops. Establishing relationships with agencies can be a weird dance. You know how it is in those early days of a blooming relationship: You hit it off. You adore their work, and they’re crazy about yours. You agree that Fournier is the most underrated typeface of all time. But things won’t always be so rosy. If you don’t have clear lines of communication, your relationship can hit the rocks, so adopt a policy of radical candor and let your agency know it goes both ways. Call the agency out if it misses a deadline, and tell the agency to do the same for you.
Some creative disagreements are inevitable, but remember that you brought in the agency’s expertise for a reason. Know when to get out of the way. And most of all, be kind. Nothing squelches the flame of creativity like being nasty. It’s almost always something you can work through. Have a conversation. You grew apart in your love for the best font ever? Suck it up, work it out, and keep moving.
5. Be ready for screwups. Patience isn’t just a virtue — it’s a necessity. There will be missteps, and if you jump ship after the first few, you’ll find yourself starting over. Do you really have the time or budget for that? Be an honest critic of the magnitude of the screwup. Will it matter next week? Next year?
Acknowledge your potential role in the problem and refrain from assigning blame. Perfection is an ideal, not a reality. One survey found that agencies make five to eight mistakes each week. Common errors include offending consumers with ad copy (31%), campaigns not starting on time (31%), and typos in live campaigns (30%). But guess what? Your internal team makes mistakes, too.
If you think your agency is exceeding the reasonable number of errors, determine whether it has put the right guardrails in place. Errors arise out of chaos, so find out what software your agency partners use to organize workflow. Ask them how they’re streamlining their revision process. Do they have multiple sets of eyes on each piece? Do they have a copy editor? Being human means we can’t prevent mistakes altogether. It’s about minimizing and managing.
And importantly, remember that design is never finished. It’s a process. With eyes on the big picture, work with your agency to keep refining and improving.
How long your agency remains a part of the process is an open question. An agency might get you on your feet while you build your in-house team, or you might decide to not let a good thing end and work together for decades. Whatever the scope and length of the relationship, if you can align your in-house and external teams, it’s bound to be a productive and rewarding one.