“You’ve got about two years,” said a wise  head of digital, when talking about how long you could sustain an agency relationship at a high-level of creativity and delivery.  After that aligning your joint goals, changing personnel and financial pressures may all start to drag your once perfect marriage down.

As clients, we tend to refer to agencies as our ‘partners’ – they are core to our success and we may think of them as an extension to our team.  But agencies have a fundamentally different view – whilst we often have one ‘partner’ on whom we rely, they have many ‘clients’.   Just the terminology tells you a lot about the different types of expectation we have of the relationship.

We want these relationships to be great and deliver brilliant and beautiful work and to achieve that requires hard work on both sides.  Like all relationships, only one side has to start misfiring for the walls to come crumbling down.

Sometimes this can be prevented, other times not.  I remember getting a phone call as Head of Digital at Age UK saying that the senior team at our agency had all walked out due to a dispute with their American Head Office.  It was Christmas week, and just four months before the newly merged organisation was due to launch to the public – all the TV advertising had already been booked and not launching was not an option.  Fortunately, we had planned to own the system from the start and invested in risk managing it even whilst it was being built.  It was still a stressful, tense time but there were no barrels we could be held over when the exit negotiations took place and we could carry on working throughout the period as we owned the development environment.

I’ve always viewed the contractual arrangements with agencies as more like affairs than marriages – one of you is obviously leaving at some point so best to ensure at the start that you have protected the family silver!

I have recently been working with a few clients whose main partner agency relationship has gone into rapid decline.  In good news, this is probably a symptom of a recovering economy – as the workload starts to ramp up the pressure on the agencies can bring them to breaking point.

And, these days, I run a small consultancy myself and so sit somewhere around the middle of the fence – watching lots of agencies and clients interact with each other and with us.

So, given that no relationship is likely to last forever, and we all operate under resource pressures, how do you get the best relationship?  Here are a few thoughts and I’d really appreciate your views.

1. Understand what motivates your agency – at pitch they probably told you how excited they were about your cause, and there’s a thin chance that’s true – but we all know that many agencies claim to be excited about everything from dog food to shampoo.  More likely they will be excited if you are a potential award winner, will fund an unbelievably cool project that will extend their business offering or help them reach the agency’s business goals (expand, sell, takeover, etc).

2. Invest time in the relationship – if you want them to be engaged and excited by your organisation then sell it to them and make the cause real.  We often bring agencies on board and never induct them, expecting them instantly to understand the complex organisations and issues we work on.  And if you want them to be passionate about your work, then you must be and you must convey that in everything you do.

3. Time is money – most agency teams are working to profit targets.  The teams will have a set figure they are aiming to make every month.  All clients need the odd favour doing unpaid, and that’s ok but someone in the agency is working late to make that time up, so use them wisely.

4. The Tardis is not currently available – sometimes you have no choice but to deliver work on short notice to your agency, but don’t make a habit of it.  They are juggling that with other people’s work and something, somewhere will give unless they have a time machine to hand and your relationship will feel the strain.

5. If you don’t know what you want, they can’t deliver it – writing a good brief is a skill and one that as a client you must have.  If you want good work you must know what you are trying to achieve and give the agency clear room to deliver it.

6. Keep your end up! – Excellent client-side digital project management is a must.  There’s little more frustrating than a client who expects you to be ever ready but always misses their own deadlines.

7. Think about the end at the beginning – start your agency relationship realistically, knowing that one day it will end and when it does you will want the family silver back.  That means investing time and resource in ensuring the assets you own with that agency belong to you, can be moved and are risk managed throughout the entire process.  Very few organisations do this and are then shocked to find that the huge, business critical investment they have made doesn’t actually belong entirely to them.

8. Learn to love the tech – to be a head of digital it sometimes feels like you must be have a handy mix of  the political skills of Kofi Annan, the ingenuity of a Steve Jobs and the technical genius of Bill Gates.  It’s hard to do them all well and often it is tech that goes missing.  If you don’t understand it, hire someone in your team that has a full knowledge of how your system is being built so you can establish how your business critical website is being managed and how risk is being mitigated.

9. Copyright is king – always make sure you own the assets being created.  There’s intellectual property in code, design and all original creative work.  And if you have not had it properly transferred you will find that you don’t own your digital platform.

10. Always think of the bigger picture – it’s all too easy to get frustrated and to  vent out some of the pressure your clients are giving you onto your agency.  Don’t do it!  Chances are you’ll vent to someone who has no power to get you out of the situation you are in.  If the problem is serious and seems organisational then take it to the top of the organisation.   There’s virtually always a long-term game to be played and whilst that’s going on you don’t want to spray friendly fire all over those on your own frontline.

So, that’s my view on how to stay sane, enjoy working with your agency and – when the time comes to end the relationship – make sure it’s a good split.

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