7 Tips for Successful Creative Agency Partnerships
If you’ve never ventured into the wonderful world of working with agency creative teams before, let me be the first to welcome you to our little slice of the industry. If you’re a repeat visitor hoping to make your next creative project even more successful, thanks for coming back.
Regardless of which side of the experience pool you’re jumping into, we’re so glad you’re here, and can’t wait to go on this journey along the paths of big ideas, thought-provoking campaigns, captivating designs, insightful stories, and powerful messaging together—yep, TOGETHER—because as you’ll learn in this handy guide, collaborating with agency creative teams can be a little different than working with other disciplines. But don’t worry, we’re incredibly nice people, and most importantly: we’ve always got your nonprofit’s back.
So what’s the best way to make our work together successful? Let’s dive in.
1. Recognize and respect each other’s expertise
You are the experts in your field, working to make a difference in the communities you serve. You know the challenges and realities of your issue space inside and out, and we recognize that those insights are invaluable in helping us do great creative work. (We promise not to read your annual report and offer our suggestions on your board governance practices!) We also know where our expertise lies, which is why you hired us. While every creative team you work with is unique, we’re all in this line of work because we’re passionate about our craft, and have spent years developing the insights, instincts, and practices that allow us to do amazing work.
If we make a recommendation or push back on a request, it’s not because we’re trying to be difficult—it’s because we have reason to believe there’s a better way to achieve your goals. And to be honest, if you ever work with a creative partner who doesn’t push back, you may want to rethink that relationship, as having a “yes team” won’t push your mission forward.
2. Think of us as a partner, not a vendor
As tempting as it is, working together with an agency’s creative team isn’t like cooking with Ron Popeil: you can’t just simply “set it and forget it.” (If you didn’t get that reference…well, I just dated myself.) Our success—and yours—relies on open communication, continual collaboration, and genuine trust between both of our teams. Just as you would hope your agency partners are available to you whenever you need them (within reason, of course), we appreciate when our nonprofit partners make themselves available to us. Questions don’t always arise right before scheduled meetings, so knowing that we’re able to reach out as needed makes for a much more seamless relationship. (Remember those brand guidelines we asked for last week? We still need them in order to design your website! Thank you kindly.)
3. Align roles, responsibilities, and expectations
Whether you’re working solely with creative, or with another agency discipline, most hiccups in agency/client relationships are caused by miscommunication or misunderstanding. Luckily, there’s an easy way to prevent this. Before starting a project, make sure you and your agency:
- Identify who will be managing the project (and all communications) on both sides
- Define who is responsible for leading, executing, and providing feedback on each workstream (a well-executed RACI chart is great for this!)
- Review expectations for each part of the project, from technical requirements and timelines to goals and deliverables.
- Be clear with your initial objectives, while remaining open to recommendations or new opportunities that may arise along the way.
4. Allow your agency team time to unpack the problem before jumping to solutions
I’ve written about this common situation before, but it’s worth repeating again: sometimes the problem you’re asking your agency to address isn’t actually the one you need to focus on solving. Part of our responsibility as your creative (and strategic) partner is to ask questions you may not have considered before. Because we have an outside perspective, we have the unique advantage of being able to see gaps and opportunities that may be more difficult to identify when you’re “in the weeds” of an organization every day. By taking the time to ask questions, and dig a little deeper, we might just uncover a meatier, and even more impactful, challenge to work on overcoming together—and some unexpectedly wonderful and creative ways to help solve it.
5. Evaluate creative work based on effectiveness, not opinion
In nearly every situation in life, we all come to the table with our own preferences and baggage. At the creative table, it might be that someone has an aversion to blue because a competitor used it a few years ago; you might be compelled to include “insider” language in your messaging because it feels more genuine to the issue space, even though it’s more difficult for some people to understand; you may even voice a preference for advertising on Instagram over Twitter because that’s where you spend most of your personal time.
While it’s natural to evaluate work based on your individual perspectives and experiences, it’s actually counterproductive to ensuring that the work is meeting its goals. More often than not, you are not your target audience—and that’s who we need to make sure the work connects with. To do this, it can be helpful to review any audience insights you’ve developed earlier in the process, and try to get into their mindset before reviewing the creative work.
Here are some questions, framed from your audience’s POV, that might be helpful:
- Do I understand the message or feeling you’re communicating? Are you speaking my language?
- Does it feel relevant to me and my life? Does it make me think about your issue/cause/nonprofit in a new and different way?
- Do I know what you stand for, or what you’re asking me to do? (Reconsider a perception, take an action, visit a website, etc.)
- Will this work feel stale in 1 month? 6 months? 12 months?
- NOTE: If you’re working on a “moment in time” campaign, you don’t really need to ask this question. But if you’re aiming for something that’s more evergreen, make sure the work is strong enough, and flexible enough, to be adapted over time.
And finally, with your client hat back on, ask yourself this:
- Do any of the ideas or designs presented make me think differently about our audiences or organization? Has the agency’s creative team delivered an approach we wouldn’t have considered on our own? Does the work make me uncomfortable? If you didn’t answer YES to at least one of these questions, it’s a good idea to talk through opportunities to push the idea further. Good creative teams will welcome the challenge.
6. Provide consolidated feedback
We understand that sometimes, feedback from the committee is hard to avoid. Especially in the nonprofit world, where there are leadership teams and boards to consider, it can be tough to limit the voices in the room. In instances where the structure of your company or organization does necessitate getting input from a whole variety of stakeholders, it’s helpful for someone on your team (as outlined in the RACI!) to be the gatekeeper and consolidator of this feedback.
- Make sure that anyone who is reviewing the work, and will be providing feedback, has the full context of the objectives and strategies
- Provide ample time for all stakeholders to review and ask questions, but be mindful of the schedule that was agreed upon earlier in the process. Delays in review cycles are one of the biggest contributors to missed delivery dates
- Review all of the feedback and ensure that any conflicting notes or comments are resolved internally before sharing with your agency team, and if possible remove any feedback that may not be helpful or useful to your agency team
- Streamline the feedback into a single document that’s organized by topic/area
- Consider scheduling a live discussion vs. just sending feedback via email, as oftentimes, many concerns can be worked through pretty quickly on a phone call or video chat
7. Collaborate on evolving the work together
After the initial creative has been presented, feedback has been shared, and your agency team begins working on the next iteration for review, continued collaboration is more important than ever. While you may be in the weeds of your organization or issue, at this point in the process, it’s easy for us to get lost in the weeds on design elements or word choices. Sometimes, it takes both of us pulling the other one back to the bigger-picture perspective to make sure we’re not overcomplicating anything, and that we’re continuing to move in the right direction toward delivering amazing creative work that we can all be proud of. (See, I’m going to obsess over that dangling participle now.)
While nothing in these seven tips should seem all that foreign from how you work with other agency disciplines, some of our nuances and ways of thinking may feel a little unfamiliar at first. But if you approach the work with an open mind, respect each other’s expertise, prioritize collaboration, and be willing to put your own opinions to the side for the sake of creating the most impactful work, your creative work, and your organization as a whole will be all that much better for it.