There comes a time in the life of an in-house marketer when they need agency support in order to implement and manage offline and online campaigns. However, building a solid working relationship between the two parties can, at times, be quite challenging, especially for those with little experience. I spoke to two senior in-house marketers: Dr. Gill Whiteman, head of online content and strategy at GTI Media and content manager of targetjobs.co.uk and Shalini Seneviratne, Global Brand Manager – Lifebuoy at Unilever, about sharing their experiences and advice on working with agencies and what to look for from an in-house marketing perspective. The following is the list of questions I posed to them along with their responses:
- What are the key criteria an external agency should meet in order to work with you?
Gill: I look for the right expertise, for the specific work that needs to be done and, thereafter, I look for clarity in the agreement. I want to know what we are going to do together, what the expected outcome will be, what both sides will be bringing to the table, and when, realistically, we can expect to see the results of any action. This is important in setting up the relationship, and it helps an in-house SEO like me to communicate the value of any activity to stakeholders within my business and also manage expectations. Our business is very committed to our SEO activity, which is great. However, that means that stakeholders are also eager to see results as soon as possible when, as we know, there can be a bit of a waiting game.
For me personally, I also want to be able to work with people I feel are credible and can make their expertise accessible. As well as achieving a specific and positive outcome for the site, I want us as a business to learn from our experiences of working with agencies and build on our internal practice so that we are always progressing.
Shalini: Firstly, I think expertise is the main thing. The whole reason for outsourcing things to an external agency is because we don’t have that expertise in house. The agency must really have a ‘wow portfolio’ which demonstrates that they have the expertise. Secondly, discipline is very important. One of the biggest complaints that people have, is how the agency doesn’t stick to time, their overall commitment levels etc. Whilst some may think that a creative process is hard to keep to deadlines, this is really important to me. Thirdly, the agency must have a sense of business. More often than not, ideas presented by agencies are very outlandish and are not practical to be implemented. They must understand the business realities and be creative within them. Finally commitment – if I look back and think about the best agency people I’ve worked with, they are the ones that really make things happen. They will go out of their way, find back-up plans, make suggestions, and pull out some pleasant surprises!
- What are the key ingredients for a successful client-agency relationship?
Gill: The key ingredients for success are good communication and clarity. It begins with good preparation before any work begins, and actually before I pick up the phone to call an agency.
From the client side, I think it is important to provide your agency with as full and clear a brief as possible. This is a good place to begin discussions and see what is possible with the time, resources, and funds available. It also sets the scene for the work that will take place. It can be difficult for both the agency and the in-house team if the internal team (content, design, development) isn’t given sufficient time to prepare for and take on the extra work that can come out of a full site audit or campaign.
I’m also a sucker for a detailed and well-presented report. I know that some people leave these to collect dust on their shelves. I don’t. We have worked with a number of agencies over the years and I do go back to review the reports. Sometimes what wasn’t possible at the time becomes possible at a later date, or I might re-evaluate something we have done previously to move it on to the next level, or reassess it against changes in practice. I get maximum value out of you guys even when you’ve moved on!
Shalini: Trust – both client and agency must really believe in and trust each other. If you brief an agency knowing their output is not going to be up to the mark (and this happens a lot) whatever they present won’t make you happy. Same with the agency – if they present to the client knowing that their ideas will be shot down, guess what?! More often than not, their ideas will be shot down. Trust will only come when both parties know that they are experts in what they do, and they really have done their background work so they can justify their ideas or feedback. With trust also comes respect. I hate having arguments with an agency about absurd ideas that can’t be implemented. And they just don’t let go and keep arguing about things that don’t make sense. This really makes me lose respect. Finally, both parties must know when to let go.
- What advice would you give other in-house marketers on sourcing and getting the best out of an agency?
Gill: I think you should aim to talk openly about expectations and not expect your agency contacts to be complete mind readers. It’s that brief again! As a site owner you know your product and your market, therefore it is in your interests to give the agency the inside view and then they can focus their expertise and consultancy better. Maybe those who are newer to managing their site’s SEO need more handholding, but even providing good basics (competitors, main keywords, gut feel of where issues may lie, etc.) and some context of your business can really help you and your agency get quickly to the root of any issues.
Shalini : Firstly it’s all about selection. Good agencies are really hard to find and good people within an agency even harder. So you shouldn’t back down and go for a substandard option; fight to get the best people in the agency working on your project. Secondly inspiration – it’s not rocket science that a creative process needs some kind of inspiration – be it where you brief, when you brief, what your brief looks like, even the language that goes into the brief. Make the agency feel like they’re part of the team. If you really think about it, they are! Get them involved from the beginning of the process, go with them to meet consumers, have them at your meetings, and get their input into other aspects of your projects as well. You need to build a strong relationship with them which is almost personal. So whether you do it by taking them out for drinks, or sending them a cake for their birthdays, it’s really up to you. But ultimately the best work comes out of inspired people and not systems and processes. I know agency people who really go out of their way for clients they like
- Finally, in your opinion, what separates the good agencies from the great?
Gill: It’s about empathy for the client’s set up. Clients want to work with consultants who can go beyond the textbook solution and work with them to find the next best approximation that can be applied to their site in particular; content management systems and business-as-usual running of a website don’t always allow for the perfect solution. I always prefer honesty and a good dose of rational thinking, and I would rather know and discuss upfront priorities and possible showstoppers, so that we can use our time together effectively.
Shalini: Consistency. Good agencies will have great ideas sometimes, but great agencies will consistently deliver great ideas. And that’s not because of some magic or coincidence. It’s because there is a scientific process that goes behind all the creativity which is required. It’s because the agency people have a deeper understanding of the consumers’ needs and each idea they present strives to find a genuine solution to these needs. Consistency also comes when you are not afraid to do something different. It’s not really about thinking outside the box (too clichéd) but it’s about thinking inside the box – the boundaries are important, you have to be creative within them.
Are you an in-house marketer? Have you had experiences of working alongside some great agency folk? If so please feel free to share your thoughts, advice and experiences with us in the comments below.
Image credit: Victor1558