How to Navigate Creative Differences With Your Agency

Data-Driven Marketing Things we notice

After years of consulting for a PR firm, I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes agencies and clients just don’t play well together in the creative sandbox.

Did your boss hire an agency without your knowledge or consent? Can you no longer recognize the person who sold you during the pitch? Does it seem like no one actually hears what you’re saying?

No matter the circumstances, there are countless reasons why internal teams and agency partners step on each other’s toes from time to time.

Instead of getting upset or immediately parting ways, it’s best to try and resolve issues as they occur. The following are common creative differences you may encounter in any agency/client relationship, and suggestions that may help.

Scenario One: The Agency Partner Doesn’t “Fit In”

Creativity starts with a safe environment to brainstorm and explore new ideas. If everyone in the room is comfortable with one another, but one person metaphorically stands alone in the corner, that energy can seriously stunt workflow. Especially at the beginning of a contract, you might feel like your agency partner is a stranger from another land. Subconsciously, this may hinder their ability to share worthwhile ideas, and your team’s ability to listen. While bringing someone up to speed can feel like a serious chore, it is in your best interest to bring outside counsel into the fold.

Suggestion: Treat agency partners like new team members.

Avoid this situation altogether by starting the relationship off on the right foot. Try getting to know them as a human being first and as a consultant second. If you treat people like outcasts, they will never truly embody your brand’s mission and approach. To this end, provide relevant training and onboarding to ensure the newcomers “get” your brand. Also, discourage the “us versus them” mentality that may arise among your team. By breaking the ice you will start to build trust, which is a crucial step to let the creative juices flow.

Suggestion: Extend meeting invites.

A little inclusion goes a long way. Invite partners to relevant meetings on an ongoing basis, even if sensitive subject matter is on the agenda. Even if the partner only participates in a listening role, face-to-face meetings and conference calls create an excellent opportunity to observe company culture, gather context about the big picture and grasp brand objectives. By immersing themselves in your brand, agency partners will be able to speak your language a little bit better. Concerned about protecting proprietary information? Make sure every representative from the agency has signed an NDA before diving in.

Scenario Two: The Agency Goes In An Uncomfortable Direction

While agency partners are often brought in for strategic counsel, they can also churn out work like nobody’s business. When you have a team dedicated to a specific campaign, it’s amazing how much you-know-what can get done in a short period of time. Especially when internal teams are at capacity, outsourcing content development can be a welcome relief.

Unfortunately, this relief is short-lived if the product delivered isn’t quite what you expected to receive. Blog posts, social media updates, website copy, emails, videos, and advertising must present one consistent message, tone, and aesthetic to the public. It would be a complete bust if your brand typically strives to share serious, heartfelt, and thought-provoking messages, but your agency submits a bunch of jokes. We all know nobody has time for multiple rewrites.

Suggestion: Provide key information up front.

Don’t expect agency partners to deliver spot-on results if you haven’t provided any context or rules in the first place. To that end, share every piece of information that has an impact on content production. Think brand guidelines, links to share drives, approved imagery, brand mission statements, and anything else that shapes your overall brand vision and approach.

Suggestion: Understand the intent.

Always seek to understand the philosophy behind the work. While a new approach may be a drastic departure from what you (and your audiences) are used to, that doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t be effective. Keep in mind that agencies brings unique expertise and a broader perspective to the table. While some of their ideas may seem unconventional to an in-house team, agencies work with a range of brands, many with similar challenges, which equips them to share a unique point of view on trends.

For example: When asked, the agency partner may explain creating a different tone of voice is an intentional move designed to increase engagement and brand awareness. If it then sounds like a good idea, ease your way into change by collaborating with your partner. Together, determine the best way to organically incorporate the new tone of voice in your existing editorial calendar. It might be worth running a pilot program for a month or two and observing the results to see if the new methods are working, or if you need to head in a different direction.

Suggestion: Provide honest, direct feedback.

If you’re still unhappy with the product, it’s best to speak up sooner rather than later. Remember that a passive aggressive approach never works. If you ultimately decide their approach was off base, explain the problem and have an open and honest dialogue to prevent future errors. It never hurts to provide detailed notes and track changes within the document to create a learning opportunity along the way.

Scenario Three: You disagree about campaign metrics

Solid agencies clearly define and present Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) as part of the initial project proposal. After all, metrics are a critical component of any scope of work, as they are used to benchmark success. That said, you may find yourselves disagreeing on the metrics to focus on once the project is officially underway.

Suggestion: Explain your vision and adjust as necessary.

A one-size-fits-all approach to campaign design and measurement does not always work. To ensure you’re including all of the right KPIs, start from the end and work your way backwards.

It all starts with a realistic vision. Picture yourself at the end of the campaign. What are you celebrating? 100 more people attending your opening night than expected? A 30% increase in sales before Thanksgiving? Taking back more share of voice from your competitors on Twitter? Explain this vision to your agency partner and work to understand how the chosen KPIs illustrate all aspects of campaign performance. Then, if there are missing gaps at the end of this conversation, work together to fill them in.

Even if you don’t share the same email domain, we are all just people at the end of the day. Embrace the perspective an agency provides your hardworking internal team, and view challenges as opportunities, rather than defeating moments. If you have agency/client success stories to share, please drop us a line on Twitter.

Katie McCall

Katie McCall is a strategic communications consultant, working with clients to establish trustworthy and engaging reputations, driving authentic communication with fans and influencers. She specializes in branding and positioning, storytelling and online advocacy networking. In addition, Katie is a lifestyle portrait photographer, serving clients in the greater Seattle community and beyond.

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