When you’ve been around long enough - and sat on both sides of the table - you begin to realise that it’s not just the quality of work that matters, but also the nature of the relationship a client has with an agency.
If that relationship is strong and constructive, then almost anything is possible. If it is toxic or simply workmanlike, nothing will be done well.
This understanding should inform our thinking when we choose an agency - in any area. After all, when we allow a third party to contribute to a vitally important part of our business, we are placing a lot of trust in that organisation. Their skill is not the only - or even the main - issue. We want to know they are taking the relationship seriously and adding as much value as possible.
And it’s not just at the moment we choose. It’s wise to continually evaluate any relationship to establish whether you are really getting what you want and whether the partner in question is really committed to your success.
At Kooba we work very hard to ensure that we deliver the best possible value to all our customers. Here’s 7 things - (in random order) to look for that help figure out whether that’s the case for you:
1 Honesty Is Prioritised Over Flattery
Nobody wants to tell a client that their idea is a bit of a turkey. But a good agency has to. If you have frank and meaningful conversations with a partner in which they are willing to stand their ground (whilst remaining respectful!) that’s a good sign - not a bad one.
We turn to external agencies for a variety of reasons, but one of them is their possession of expertise, skills and knowledge that we don’t have. So we have to listen, and we need to be aware that the easy thing for any partner to do is flatter. Flattery might make us feel good in the short term, but it ultimately means we are being short-changed.
Perhaps worse, it can lead to an agency agreeing with the client and then disregarding that agreement when it comes to execution. In this situation, where the client does not even know what is happening, it is fair to say the relationship has completely broken down. In short: beware the agency that nods and smiles only. They aren’t doing their job.
2 You Have Access To The Right People
It is perhaps the oldest trick in the book. After meeting a variety of extremely impressive people during the sales process, they gradually disappear once the contract is signed.
In some less scrupulous industries this is almost standard practice. But it’s never really good enough. Ideally, when in a sales process you should ask to meet the individuals who will be handling the account after the deal is done. But at the very least, a sensation that you appear to be interacting with more junior people every passing day is a red flag.
On the flip side, if the agency you work with continually brings new people with new skills to the table - you are probably on to a good thing.
3 A Process Exists (But Can Be Adapted)
If your relationship with an agency tends to involve throwing ‘jobs’ over the wall and waiting for results to come back, that isn’t a good sign. Instead, every project should be clearly scoped, and both client and agency should understand the process that will be followed in order to deliver predictably outstanding results.
Having a process, however, doesn’t mean a lack of flexibility. If something needs to be done and needs to be done as a matter of urgency, then in an ideal world that should happen. Assuming, of course, it really IS urgent!
Similarly, a good agency should use a process to structure work, but acknowledge that sometimes that structure has to be broken. If a client changes their mind after signing off wireframes, for example, a good agency should attempt to work around that challenge rather than refuse to go back and look again because of ‘the process’.
4 Your Needs Are Emphasised Over Theirs
Surely every agency wants what is best for their client? Well, not really. Most obviously, in many cases an agency wants to collect as much money as possible for doing as little as possible (nobody likes to put it that way, but it helps to remember this is often the case). If you assume your agency is doing next to nothing, you are probably starting from the right place….
But in addition, the priorities when it comes to actual work can differ. Agencies like awards and work they can show to potential new clients. Clients want something that does the job for them. Those competing interests are not always aligned.
The sign of a good agency is a desire to focus on the clients business objectives, and frame conversations about success and failure in those terms. Does it really matter that your agency put on their black tie and collected an award for their work on your behalf - when your own KPIs are down? Not really.
5 Communication Lines Are Open
Communication is at the heart of any good relationship. So it is with clients and agencies. If you don’t speak to your agency from one month to the next, there is certainly a problem or issue. At the very least you should be expecting some form of regular conversation and updates on performance.
Better again, of course, is ongoing organic interaction. If an agency is to be considered almost as a part of the client organisation, that is really the standard we should be aiming for: anything less gives a little too much opportunity for expectations to diverge and misunderstanding to arise.
Don’t forget that communication should take place at all levels. Meetings at formal steps of the project, emails and phone calls, and of course sit down catch-ups across teams and disciplines and the client and agency. The more talking, the better.
6 The Agency Is Proactive
I mentioned above that one reason to employ an agency is to add skills and experience that your own organisation does not have - and would find it hard to add easily. Given that is the case, an agency is really adding value when they proactively volunteer new approaches and ideas to the client.
I also noted that many agencies had a view of the world in which doing no work for regular money would be considered a success. These agencies will not volunteer new ideas, because ideas tend to mean work. So a relationship that is entirely reactive is not usually a good sign.
Good agencies trade on their understanding of latest trends, technical possibilities, new approaches: and the research that gives them that understanding. A client should expect them to share knowledge and keep pushing to deliver new, innovative (and effective) solutions.
7 You Love The Work
I said no specific order, but perhaps I have left the best to last. And although the focus has been on the less obvious aspects of working together, of course it matters that you love the work, and continue to love the work over time.
I don’t really believe that the practice of insisting agencies re-pitch for work on a regular basis is a positive, but if you are feeling short changed or simply don’t feel you are getting what you want, never be afraid to go out looking. As with anything else in business, whilst it is easy to let things go, one tough conversation can deliver a huge amount of value down the line. Never put up with work you don’t love!
One last note. Whilst it should be relatively easy to judge an existing partner using these rules, remember to apply them as best as possible when choosing a new one. In our field, many potential customers simply look at existing work. That’s fine by us of course, but do look to speak to existing clients and establish what working with any specific agency feels like. And feel free to use this blog post as a guide!
Repost from 2021.