Relationships are hard. It’s no different at the office (maybe even more so when said office is virtual and/or teams are distributed). This can be especially true of the in-house marketer and agency one. To get a perspective from both sides, I sat down with two MTS contributors who have each had a chance to work on both sides of the desk:
- Meg, a career in-house marketer with a little agency experience on the side (you know, like a good dressing)
- Steph, who spent more than half of her career in-house but has been living the agency life the last seven(ish) years
Together, we’re going to break down the biggest challenges this crucial business relationship can face. Just like in any couples therapy, each side gets a little time to share their truth uninterrupted, then we’ll provide some advice on where you can go from here.
You’re just not moving fast enough
Here’s the struggle: by the time you bring an agency in, you’re likely already behind on some major initiatives. You’ve probably tried to accomplish your goals on your own, and haven’t been able to pull it off. So, you move to the next logical step – bring in an agency.
The problem is that adding an agency is a lot like onboarding a new hire; no matter how experienced they are, you’re gonna need some time to ramp up. And time just isn’t on your side.
Speed is an issue I’ve run into over and over. Clients want you to move at the speed of in-house staff or faster, and as much as you might want to, the reality is that you’ve got the same forty-hour workweek (and honestly, it’s probably closer to sixty) but have multiple companies to spread it across.
And while you’ve also got multiple resources doing the work, they’re typically all spread pretty thin. Everyone ends up frustrated. And that doesn’t even account for the ramp time it takes to learn a company’s unique needs and politics, which Meg is alluding to.
In-house marketers, do your best to manage expectations internally. Establish that things may be a little slower to get off the ground, but you should see a solid result in the long run once things get humming along.
Agencies, be transparent about schedules and timelines, keep them up to date and flag as things start to get crunched. And for the ramp-up period, pay attention to any and all cues the client is giving you, even ones they might not realize. It’ll help you get sensitized to their reality faster.
It is SO important to get your agency up to speed fast, but as we’re talking about, it is hard! It feels like once you give them all the background they need, you head into your next meeting only to discover that things have evolved, and now you need your agency to react to the pivot – fast.
You inevitably end up the information filter between your leadership team, internal team and the agency. That role can get pretty frustrating, especially if your agency doesn’t ingest and process your info dumps as quickly as you need them to.
My agency is full of incredibly talented humans who are able to process information at super speed (honestly agency people, how do you do it?!), they are still human. So I get it. But how can we get this working better?
This is really tough. Yes, your clients need you to stay on pace with their sometimes rapid-fire changes. And you want to, you really do, but again, scale is the challenge. You’ve got multiple clients calling with their latest updates, plus you’re dealing with inevitable changes in your own agency’s organization as well.
If you’re the account manager, you’ve got to summarize and distribute all those updates to your team, which likely includes freelancers, contractors and partners who are also managing their own client load, for all clients, as quickly as you can. And just when you’re done, the next round of changes starts to roll in.
Start as many shared (read: living) documents as you can. Just because you reviewed something on a call doesn’t mean everyone heard or understood it the same way, so document everything in a single source of truth. Project management tools like Monday.com, Asana or Basecamp paired with Google Docs or Word docs in shared Dropbox or Box accounts are all a good approach to use.
In-house marketers, treat your agency with the same patience you would a new hire who is still getting ingrained into your culture. Agencies, you’re the ones with tons of experience, so leverage it to set the processes your clients don’t even know they need.
You expected what, now?
This is a crude way to put it, but I never really understood the phrase “sh*t rolls downhill” until I ended up in the middle-person position. I’m not proud but I’ll admit it; I’ve been guilty of funneling the pressure I get from my managers down to my team (both internal and agency).
This frustration is typically centered around my feeling that the agency wasn’t moving fast enough (yup, back to speed) or that they weren’t producing the results we’re looking for. This has led to a contentious relationship that didn’t serve anyone well, and frankly, it wasn’t very fun.
There may be no worse feeling than walking into a client call knowing they’re disappointed in your performance. I mean, okay, there might be worse, but honestly, this one sucks. In my experience, this often happens when there’s misalignment (see above!) or miscommunication.
For example, we (the agency) weren’t clear enough about how long something would take to turn around, or we didn’t make it clear to the client that their schedule would be impacted if they didn’t deliver the approvals or materials we were asking for. It might also be that our understanding of the goal didn’t match the client’s understanding (or sometimes, that none of our understandings matched the client’s leadership team’s expectations).
Remember you’re all on the same team here. You share in the same success, and suffer from the same failure. You need to work together to set clear expectations.
In-house leads, get your agency some cover so they have the time and space to do their job well. Also, make sure you’re keeping your leadership aligned on what they’re working on and what the expected results are. If your agency isn’t hitting clear and fair goals that you both set together, then maybe they aren’t the right fit for you.
Agency guys, surprises are NOT your friend. Keep your client up to speed on everything going on. If you’re trending down or are not going to hit a target, let them know early and offer solutions. If you’re about to miss a deadline, tell them ASAP. The more time you have to plan for a change, the better for everyone involved.
But…I can just do it myself!
I’m a marketer who is used to “doing” all the things myself (read: being a lone wolf). Since hiring an agency, it’s really hard to not just start implementing tactics all willy-nilly on my own, without consulting or even notifying my agency. Giving up control is really hard for me, even when the agency is made of people I trust implicitly. I just hate letting go!
It’s an age-old problem. You’re hired to do a job, but the person who hired can also do a lot of the same job you do, and will be tempted to either A, do it themselves, or B, tell you exactly how to get it done because they “know better”. When you’re a professional with plenty of experience, either pathway is painful. But in both scenarios, you need to balance “the client is always right” with “but you’re actually killing me.”
This one is mostly for you, in-house team. You have to remember that you hired a group of experts, and now you need to let them do what they do best. Trust them, and if they don’t work out, address it and make changes.
And since I did say “mostly”…agencies, remember that this can be hard for your clients and try to be patient with them.
It’s not you, it’s…well, you
This one is sticky. When you’re building an internal team, you have final say if someone fits your culture and management style. But when working with an agency, you don’t get to choose everyone who works on your account. You have to work with the right person for the task based on skill, regardless of whether you “gel” with them.
This definitely goes both ways. You have no say in who your point of contact at the client’s company is, or who else will be involved (subject matter experts, decision makers, etc.). You might get along great with one person but find that another is getting on your last nerve. Or you might discover that the person you’re going to work with most is someone you cannot find common ground with.
If you’re on the in-house side, it’s true that you can’t pick the whole team, but you can choose the agency based on whether you work well with your main point of contact (typically an account manager). Bear in mind that this is a team that will (hopefully) work with you for a while, so it’s okay to disqualify an agency if you don’t think you’ll be able to work with their personalities.
For those of you at an agency, well, you’ve got a lot less say here. Unless you’re the agency owner, and possibly not even then, you won’t be able to turn away a paying client just because you don’t think they’re going to be a joy to work with. My best advice is, if you’re considering a job at an agency, know that you will probably end up client-facing at some point, so if you’ll really struggle with personalities, an agency might not be the right fit for you.