There’s a huge gap between fantasy and reality when it comes to agency collaboration. One of my clients could not believe how collaborative agency partners appeared when she was in the room, yet were so dysfunctional the minute she left for coffee. Someone would always come along to use that moment to poach another agency’s assignment. “We can do it better, faster and cheaper,” they would say in a somewhat predictable sales pitch.

It’s no surprise, then, to hear that 62% of clients view their agencies as suppliers, not partners, and that many marketing executives say their agencies are more interested in selling their work rather than solving their problem (62% and 56% respectively, according to the Naked True study).

What’s Killing Cross-Agency Collaboration

More than two-thirds of client-side marketers agree that integrating all marketing activities across channels is crucial, yet just 10% say their messaging, execution and delivery are aligned across touchpoints, according to eMarketer. In order to improve that output, they need to solve the input: how agency partners work together. Lack of clarity, maturity and trust among partners doesn’t help, but neither do the current rules of engagement. Here are some that need to be revisited:

  • The “best idea wins” approach. Having your PR, Media, Digital and Creative agencies competing against each other shifts focus. Everyone is seeing the other as competitors. Going back to my client anecdote, they are fighting against each other rather than helping to beat the real competition: that of the client’s.
  • Expecting agencies to just figure it out. A clear process on how to work together and develop integrated platforms is the foundation of true collaboration. Clients need to provide distinct rules of engagement. Assigning deliverables (who does what) is not enough.
  • Compensation based on individual performances. If you want a team to behave like a team, reward them like a team. When only the winning agency partner –the one who created the approved idea — gets paid, we are letting financial agendas get in the way of collaboration.
  • Expecting collaboration at the top. While it makes sense to discuss the importance of cross-agency collaboration with senior leaders among agency partners, that’s not where the solutions will come from. They are not wired that way nor involved in how the work is actually developed. Collaboration should happen at the team level.
  • The big idea that can be expanded across Good integration should be at the core of the idea, not an afterthought. The era of TV-led campaigns is over. Consumer participation and holistic planning should happen when the platform is being developed, not after the fact.

From AOR to a Collaboration Agency Model

In an era of open source and collaboration, hierarchies, agency snobbery and self-centered perspectives no longer make sense. It’s time for marketing service agencies to embrace a new mindset. We need to stop seeing collaboration as a threat to our egos, and instead see it as a way to thrive in a more complex consumer and media landscape. Here are some thoughts:

  • Real collaboration requires (early) alignment. Participating partners need to kick off an assignment with a shared vision on the challenge they are trying to solve. One single agenda should lead everyone’s passion. Clear roles and responsibilities are important, but with the freedom to allow proactivity beyond specific areas of expertise.
  • Let go of power, empower people instead. The AOR model is built on the notion of efficiency (less cost, one voice, more coordination) but also has more of an assembly-line feel, better suited for the past. Brands that are always-on need a cross-agency collaboration that is always-on too. The new model requires ongoing conversations around strategy, creativity, media and technology happening in real-time rather than in isolation.
  • Collaboration is a team sport, not an organizational one. Think more of a lead team rather than a lead agency. It’s about bringing together the brightest minds that every partner has assigned to a specific project. Embrace diversity of thinking versus limiting people to their actual area of specialization.
  • Establish a clear collaboration process. Right mindsets and behaviors don’t simply happen, they need to be coached. Collaborative processes, such as Design Thinking, ensure you involve the right people at the right time, building on different perspectives to develop richer solutions towards one shared goal. From understanding the user to providing strategic direction all the way to ideation, planning and execution.
  • Reward the team, not individual organizations. Reward the behaviors you want to happen. Think of incentive models that reward all the partners involved based on collective integrated marketing goals (business, marketing and collaboration) rather than individual achievements.

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