When I left journalism to become a Chief Communications Officer at a Fortune 100 company, I was a little vexed about what to do with a communications agency. I had this big, talented staff. Why did I need to spend money on outsiders who I didn’t fully trust or control? What did an agency know that I didn’t?
It turns out, plenty.
Eventually, I got over my agency-phobia and learned to treat my agency partners as, well, partners, and even friends – so much so that after watching a great agency at work, I decided to join one.
That said, I’ve also experienced the natural tensions that often develop between CCOs or Comms Directors and the agencies that serve them, and over the years I’ve learned a few things from both sides about how to build a successful partnership.
Rules for agencies:
- Keep the off-the-shelf stuff on the shelf: I once was handed a plan for an upcoming internal development that had been created by an agency before I took the job. It was fine but it was mostly basic, cookie-cutter material that could have applied to any such action by any entity and was only minimally tailored to this organization. On paper it might have impressed those who didn’t know better. But it didn’t endear that agency to the new person in charge.
- Learn the business: If you’re serving a widget maker and don’t take the time to learn how the widgets are made; who is buying the widgets; who else is selling widgets; who the key widget executives are and the long-term forecasts for the company and the widget industry, then it shows you don’t care enough to understand and keep the business.
- Come to play: If I’m spending the hard-earned dollars of my shareholders, owners, members or donors on you and your agency, then you need to show something tangible in return to demonstrate that the investment is worth it. This starts with being an idea machine and ends with measurable outcomes. These can be big-ticket strategic plans, sharp tactical ideas and simple, pre-determined KPIs that you’re delivering on. Either way, never let a weekly check-in go by when you’re not proposing ideas or measuring the impact of something that is driving the client’s objectives.
- Meet your deadlines: Not much to add here. If you’ve promised something – get ‘er done on time. And if you can’t for some, probably good, reason – give plenty of warning. Most CCOs or Comms Directors will understand as long as they’re not blindsided.
- Understand the pressures of your friendly CCO/Comms Director: On a given day, a CCO/Comms Director is dealing with demands from the CEO and other executives, big thoughts, little tasks, countless meetings, staff issues, a crisis or two and any number of other things that eat up a typical 10-12-hour day. A little empathy and understanding of the CCO/Comms Director’s job can also go far in developing a positive, long-term relationship.
- Be appreciative: It never hurts to thank someone for their business and to do extra things – even if they’re not always billed – that show you want to be a partner now and long into the future.
Rules for CCOs/Comms Directors:
- Treat your agency as a true partner: To be effective, an agency should be an extension of your own team. Dominic Carr, VP of Communications at Lyft, summed it up nicely in a recent issue of PR Week: “Someone told me early on that clients get the agency team they deserve. If you build a strong partnership and try to do interesting things and are respectful of their contribution, you get better partners. People want to work on the work. We should strive to be good clients.”
- Set clear objectives and measurable KPIs: Ideally, this is covered in the scope of work. But it’s natural for things to change and evolve. A quarterly or twice-a-year checkup is a good practice to ensure everyone remains in lockstep.
- Communicate and provide access and feedback: You don’t have to tell your agency team every little corporate secret, but making them aware of the latest thinking from the C-suite, personnel changes, shifts in strategy and new initiatives are the only ways to ensure they can give you their best work. (See rule No. 1.) And if you don’t like something, tell your agency lead. Honesty is the only way to fix problems and get the results you both want.
- Respond in a timely manner: This has happened to everybody. An agency works overtime to get a project done and then it sits. And sits. And sits. If you want your agency team to be fully invested, it’s important that you are, too. Nothing is more frustrating than to do good work and see it slip into a black hole. If there’s a reason it’s on hold, tell the agency why; they’ll understand.
- Don’t waste the agency’s time and your resources: Time is currency for an agency. Unless it’s stipulated in your scope, you shouldn’t view your agency as an all-you-can-eat buffet. The agency serves you and a roster of clients according to agreed-upon budgets and staffing levels. That’s not to say they can’t handle emergencies or pivot to support quickly changing priorities for you, but understand that they’ve got a business to run just as you do.
- Be appreciative: Again, it never hurts to say thanks for a job well done. And be mindful that sometimes things don’t always go as planned. It’s the results over time that count.
This is some of what I’ve learned over the years. Now, I’d love to hear what’s on your list. Please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.