Get your act together

Collaborating on an account can benefit all parties involved, but there’s no room for big egos, and the client’s needs are paramount, says Alex Shephard

You have to feel sorry for clients. They recognise the need for external expertise to deliver a marketing programme, they meet a variety of agencies and put a lot of work into briefing them all. They sit through pitches and, after careful thought, appoint the chosen ones. A little later, far too often, they then have to be distracted from their real work to act as referees.

What is it about agencies that they seem to find it so hard to work together?It all boils down to jealousy, ambition and money. An agency meets the client, pitches for work and is appointed. So far, so good. The agency should be happy, right? If only. What actually happens is that, possibly at the first all-party meeting, the agency looks around the table and doesn’t like what it sees. “We could be doing more with direct mail /SMS/inserts and so on,” it thinks. “If only the client wasn’t spending so much on advertising/sponsorship/hospitality… I want more of its budget.” We have all seen this happen and, if we’re honest, most of us have at least thought like that at some time.

The solution, fortunately, is simple enough: just grow up.

Easier said than done? No, not if we remember what collaboration is about and why it matters. You wouldn’t be working for the client if you didn’t trust it — and you certainly respect its judgement in having appointed you — so you should accept it knows what it is doing in appointing other agencies. You also have to accept that, while you have a duty to present great ideas, the client has the right to make its own decisions about how it invests its budget.

Remember, the output from collaborative thinking is significantly greater and potentially much more powerful than the sum of its parts. The client gains from everybody working together, but so can the individual agencies involved.

Smaller, typically younger organisations gain a larger share of voice than they might otherwise enjoy. The larger, more traditional agency leaders get to see a new way of working, with the opportunity for reinvigorating a potentially staid process and blinkered approach to problem solving. If all parties can recognise and accept these benefits, it will help in engendering the mutual respect that is necessary for successful collaboration.

It is essential to park egos outside, and recognise that only the quality of an idea matters – its source is irrelevant. Individuals need to cast aside their usual ways of working and be receptive to an unfamiliar environment in which “different” does not have to mean “worse”. All agency representatives must be able to contribute on an equal footing, at least within the initial planning process. When it comes to implementation of individual campaign elements, some agencies are going to play a greater part than others.

When it works, inter-agency collaboration becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, with achievement growing exponentially. As individuals start to think beyond their usual comfort zones, they can find the task more personally rewarding.

Be confident that you are at the table on merit, and be relaxed that your collaborators are there for the same reason. They are not a threat. If it is deemed that the collective talents do not include a required competency in the room, the agencies shouldn’t feel prevented from bringing in an additional resource as required. This is an indication of maturity, not inadequacy.

Do not forget, the client has a role to play in ensuring successful inter-agency collaboration. It must support — and be seen to support — the collaborative spirit. It must be ready, if all else fails, to exert authority and lean on any agency which is not playing the game properly. Above all, though, it must be prepared to stand back and allow the team to get on with the job.

Think of the long term and what you will want to be telling the world, once the agencies’ efforts have resulted in marketing reality. If you have not worked collaboratively, all you will be able to say is that you worked on a particular element of a campaign.

Ultimately, it comes down to the sense of achievement that’s up for grabs at the end of it all. You can either feel responsible for a part of the campaign or for the whole project, taking pride in the achievement of just part of the activity or the creation of the central, big idea. So, ask yourself a simple question: just how proud do you want to feel when the world sees your work?

• Alex Shephard, group account director, Space

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