To Get the Most Value from Your Agency Partners, Align on Goals, Not Solutions

8 minute read

Upland Admin

I love that companies come to my creative agency with big ideas about how to solve their business problem.

But if you think of a brand-agency partnership like a marriage, sometimes these relationships are skipping over the messiness of getting to know each other first. Starting a relationship with a request for proposal (RFP) is like bringing a prenup to a first date.

I understand why companies do this. Brand managers know their businesses, they’ve kissed a lot of frogs, and their bosses are urging them to settle down and execute on a plan. The upside to this approach is that with a clear solution in mind, an agency can usually throw resources at the immediate need—and fill it.

The downside is that there is less real understanding, which is the basis for doing great work over the long term. The best partnerships our agency has with clients start when we have a chance to get to know their businesses, and even to fall in love with them.

Like any lasting relationship, a brand-agency partnership should be based on communication and critical thinking. We need to ask why the company has the goals they do, what their vision is, and how they define success.

Taking stock up front allows both sides of this partnership to approach short- and long-term goals in a way that delivers value to the brand from day one.

Get Your Agency Involved in Your Strategic Roadmap

To me, the the basis of a great partnership is when I know what kind of dent the company wants to put in the universe.

That’s when I want to jump up and fight for the brand and help scale it. But getting to that point, and therefore to the great marketing that can result, is messy. It means putting aside preconceptions.

Traditionally, companies think of agencies as a source of creative manpower to implement a particular tactic—e.g., we’re doing an ad campaign, so we need an agency to create the ads.

But the line between agency and consultation is blurring, and the real value of your agency may lie in the creativity it brings to earlier points in the process.

By cutting your agency out of strategic discussions, you’re leaving value on the table. But if you’re able to involve your partners in the strategy roadmap, they can help take what you want and run with it.

Don’t Fixate on a Solution: Frame the Problem and Define the Partnership

All too often, brands and businesses solicit RFPs for a particular solution, rather than articulating the root problem they need to fix or the goal they seek to achieve.

Sometimes the solution they have in mind is an integration of traditional and digital campaigns. Other times, the solution is a shopping list of apps and social media accounts with the agency’s creative magic applied.

My biggest pet peeve is when an RFP throws a specific technology into the mix simply because it’s mentioned frequently in the news. (Cough, cough…WordPress.)

For example, it’s quite common for agencies like mine to get requests to help build Facebook apps. Sure, you can find a marketing agency to build that, no questions asked. But a great marketing team asks questions first: why do you want a Facebook app? What do you hope to accomplish with it?

And if it emerges that your real goal is to measure customer loyalty and lifetime value and find ways to improve both, then a good agency should be able to steer you to a creative solution, rather than a “me-too” solution. Instead of a Facebook app, this agency may end up developing a creative loyalty or customer experience tool.

The point is that forward-thinking agencies should be able to understand where the gaps are in your business, work with you to define the problem, and then identify effective solutions.

Focus on the Goal, and Measure What Matters

It’s far better to start a brand-agency partnership by outlining the business goal. Then the planning process can begin and the KPIs can be established.

Make no mistake: drilling down to the goals is a time-consuming process. It takes many conversations, lots of discovery, and plenty of back and forth between client and agency.

But that conversation is where the real value of this partnership lies, and the payoff is the new approach that aligns with your business’ real needs. It also ensures that the KPIs will be measuring what really matters.

One of our clients, a leading enterprise cloud-based commerce platform, came to us wanting to further anchor their position in the market as a thought leader in commerce. When we looked under the hood, we saw a number of bottlenecks in their website.

Ultimately, we created a multilingual, localized, SEO-friendly website that was engineered to load at breakneck speeds and seamlessly integrate with their other digital channels.

But we never would have got to that solution without a clear understanding of their goal: attracting new customers. If they had been hung up on a particular solution, the entire initiative would have been aimless and unmeasurable.

Put the “Brief” Back in Creative Briefs

Another misconception many brand managers and C-suite executives harbor is that they need a detailed, 100-page brief for their marketing campaign.

Not so. A simple, one-sentence or one-paragraph directive can actually get better results.

My favorite brief was from Barney’s New York, which came to us in 2011 when they were partnering with Lady Gaga for a holiday store-within-a-store featuring her jewelry designs and artwork. Paraphrasing, they essentially said to us, “Help us bring Gaga’s workshop to life and capture the spirit of the retail experience online and globally.”

In the end, we developed a digital experience that recreated the whimsical and stylish spirit of the in-store holiday experience. Online fans could preview items from the collection and insert their own photos into Lady Gaga’s “workshop.”

Interacting with the Gaga Machine unlocked clues to events, merchandise, videos, and prizes that could be found online and around New York City.

A 12-day social media and public relations campaign played off a “12 Days of Gaga” advent calendar theme, unveiling a new product each day.

The results were significant: holiday sales leaped 70% from the previous year and the campaign netted more than four billion earned-media impressions worldwide. Because the client distilled the campaign’s goal down to a broad outline, we were freed to be creative—not just in the design, but in strategy.

Looking for examples of what makes a great brief? If you haven’t seen Briefly by Bassett & Partners, I highly recommend you give it 26 minutes of your time.

“Discipline is the Bridge Between Goals and Accomplishment.”

Never forget that you work in a partnership with an agency to solve a common goal, whether it’s to increase sales, address a technical issue, or differentiate the brand from its competitors.

As motivational speaker Jim Rohn said, “Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment.” That partnership depends on teamwork and mutual trust and respect. It can never be one-sided.

A couple notes of caution, though. First, letting go of a preconceived solution doesn’t mean anything goes. Sometimes creative agencies  get excited about new tools and approaches for their own sake.

They can get caught up in the shiny and new, or what some call the Holy Grail Syndrome: the search for the one mythical, all-powerful tool or partner that will solve all business problems. That’s not doing your business any favors.

Second, agencies may sometimes recommend something because it’s in their wheelhouse rather than because it’s right for the brand. We don’t know your business as well as you do, so we do you a disservice if we fixate on Agile or Waterfall or any other boilerplate methodology just because we’re comfortable with it.

Getting to the Goal so You Can Get to “Go”

As I said, marketing can be messy. But it doesn’t have to be complicated. Sometimes, the best way to start is by getting out simple tools like whiteboards and post-it notes.

Another way to think about it is that you want a partner who will help you find your true north the way a good business model canvas does.

Personally, though I promise not to fixate, I’m a big fan of Value Proposition Design from the folks at Strategyzer. Simon Sinek’s Start With Why is also one of a handful of books I’m forever pushing on my friends and colleagues.

But whatever the process, it should begin with understanding and aligning around your true goal so you can go forward to find a great solution, together.

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