You’re planning for a massive marketing campaign. It’s more than your team can handle internally, so you’re working with a creative agency to handle a lot of the logistics.

In order to move forward with a piece of the project, they’re asking for some metrics that will empower them to make smarter decisions. And in order to get the information they need, you reach out to the analytics firm you frequently work with to request that they send the information to your agency.

Before long, you end up bouncing back and forth like a ping-pong ball between those two different vendors—only to have all of you eventually wind up frustrated, confused, and doing nothing but spinning your wheels.

If you read through that entire anecdote while nodding your head, you aren’t alone. In one survey, 36% of respondents stated that their organizations are not highly effective when it comes to collaborating with brand or agency counterparts to translate a marketing vision into a targeted, cross-channel program.

So what can you do? How do you ensure the different players—your internal team members, your agency, and your different tech vendors—aren’t at odds with each other? How can you all work harmoniously to ensure a solid final result?

Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen: Why Successful Collaboration is Tough

When you think about it, collaboration should be easy. After all, you all want everything to run smoothly and for the relationship to be successful. You’re on the same side —even if it doesn’t always feel that way.

“These types of relationships are really the victims of misguided norms,” explains John Pabon, Founder and Chief Storyteller of Fulcrum Sustainability Consulting, a strategic communications firm. “We’ve become used to the divide between brands and vendors, with relationship dynamics not at all conducive to collaboration.”

This perceived divide often leads to a real, tangible one—especially when it comes to keeping information close to the vest.

“Companies on both sides are scared of losing intellectual property, so they don’t share critical pieces that could make or break the collaboration,” Pabon adds. “They treat collaboration as if it’s a zero-sum game, when in reality all sides can win.”

Even further, Pabon explains that too many brands have the tendency to not adequately value those external agencies—which creates an even bigger rift in the relationship. “External vendors are treated as if they are expendable, instead of as trusted partners in a process,” he explains. “This breaks down the trust factor necessary for successful engagements.”

And all of these challenges don’t even account for the more logistical headaches that can get in the way—such as constantly needing to work with new people. “If you are working with a large agency, the individuals assigned to your account may change due to turnover,” shares Laura Ann Craven, Director of Communications and Marketing at Imperial Dade. That adds more complexity to an already challenging situation.

How to Improve Collaboration for Your Brand

Needless to say, there are plenty of obstacles when it comes to successfully collaborating with those outside of your direct organization. But rest assured, it’s doable—provided you’re willing to implement some best practices such as:

1. Find the right fit.

A seamless collaboration starts long before either one of you signs on the dotted line of a contract. Not all agencies and vendors are created equally, and it’s important that you begin by finding the right partner for your own brand.

“Find the right fit and then nurture that relationship for the long haul,” advises Craven. “There are many talented creative professionals and terrific agencies. But in order for the partnership to work, there has to be a deep understanding of your brand, company culture, and marketing team members. The agency should be an extension of your team with specific skill sets—not a third-party vendor.”

Before ever sitting down with a potential agency or partner, take time to think through things like:

  • What specific skills do you need to complement your team? Does the vendor specialize in those things?
  • What values do you want that vendor to have that fit with your own company culture?
  • What approach to teamwork should they possess in order to make this working arrangement successful?

By thinking through these things beforehand—and then looking for vendors with that specific criteria in mind—you’re sure to set yourself up for greater success in the long run.

2. Have an honest discussion about individual goals.

Getting on the same page about project goals is a necessary step in the process (more on that in a moment). However, it’s important that you also consider everybody’s individual goals for this arrangement.

“Step one is getting everyone to put their cards on the table,” shares Pabon. Everyone is eager to get something out of working together—outside of a paycheck and a deliverable. For example, perhaps your project lead is looking for a promotion. Or maybe that vendor needs a case study or testimonial to boost their business development.

“In identifying the drivers behind engagement (What do I want out of this?), similarities will arise between groups,” adds Pabon. “These similar issues are the ones to focus time and resources on, because if you do that, everyone’s happy.”

3. Get on the same page about the project goal.

Individual motivators are a key consideration. But since you’re all collaborating on a shared project, it’s imperative that you go beyond selfish desires and get on the same page about the actual project goals as well.

This is one area where most collaborators struggle—particularly when it comes to agreeing on what success looks like. For example, 62% of brands and 72% of media agencies in the UK say they find it difficult to get meaningful KPIs from one another.

“The proverbial moving goalpost is the one key driver of frustration between a client and vendor,” Pabon says. “Identifying collaboratively what success looks like from the very beginning is critical to a good relationship. This includes the KPIs and metrics of the final deliverable, as well as what’s realistic within capacity constraints and a given timeline.”

Before kicking off a project, host a meeting (whether it’s virtual or in-person) where you can all get on the same page about what would make this collaboration a success. This way, you can rest assured that you’re all actually working toward the same goal as you move forward.

“The less assumptions the better in a collaborative environment,” shares Beckie Manley, CEO of Fierce Strategy + Creative. “Sometimes in our fast-paced world, taking time to kick off a project properly and strategically gets overlooked and causes many issues down the road that could have easily been avoided.”

4. Explain the entirety of the project.

Another thing you should be sure to touch on during that initial meeting about a new project? A holistic explanation of the entire initiative.

Craven uses the example of creating new sales collateral for your brand. What you need is already clear, but you need to dig deeper. “Explain who those customers are and what action you want them to take after reading your brochure,” Craven says.

In other words, you need to go beyond the “What” (i.e. “we need a new brochure”) and touch on things like:

  • The “How”: By positioning our company as a trusted advisor
  • The “When”: At the appropriate time in the buying cycle
  • The “Why”: To increase sales of a new item to existing customers

By digging into those extra, imperative details, you’ll give your vendors a complete vision — which means they’ll be able to more effectively work in the best interests of your brand and the project as a whole.

5. Make responsibilities explicitly clear.

Another thing that can easily get lost in the shuffle when you have so many different people and entities working on the same project? Exactly who is responsible for what.

“There need to be clear lines between what a client is responsible for and what the vendor is responsible for,” warns Pabon. “Each side has their strengths and weaknesses, which is why the collaboration came to be in the first place. Knowing what these are from the start can prevent most conflicts from happening.”

Of course, this doesn’t need to be set in stone and some duties might shift as the project evolves. But when you’re just getting started, consider creating a roster of sorts that dictates what each person or group is responsible for. Then, save it in a shared place where everybody can easily access it.

This will proactively address any potential confusion, while also making communication far more streamlined for everybody involved.

TIP: It can also be helpful to assign just one point person for the project (such as the project manager). Having all communication and approvals funnel through that one team member will take a lot of the guesswork out of the process.

Learn how to harness and leverage the creativity of all of your team members and vendors in Linda Hill’s thought-provoking TED Talk: How to Manage for Collective Creativity (Length: 17:16).

6. Set communication checkpoints.

When it comes to improving collaboration, you’ll hear the importance of open communication mentioned a lot. Unfortunately the continued emphasis on communication can often lead to late-night phone calls and never-ending email chains—which also aren’t effective.

Instead, consider establishing a process for communicating—such as implementing a weekly update via a Wrike task, for example. Whether that’s something the vendor sends or a task that you’ll initiate on your own end, that update should explain things like:

  • What was accomplished that week
  • What’s coming for next week
  • What items are still needed in order to make that progress
  • A progress update on your KPIs

It’s a great way to keep everybody on the same page, without overwhelming anyone or getting wires crossed.

“We get consensus on the creative brief or ‘roadmap’ for the project before beginning,” explains Manley about how her own agency operates. “From there, we share milestones like links they can view to see progress, detailed reports outlining workflow and progress, video meetings where we can talk through what’s happening behind the scenes and discuss any concerns or changes, and manage deadlines and budget expectations along the way.”

Put simply, you want to avoid surprises. That doesn’t mean you need to be in constant contact at all hours—but setting these regular check-in sessions will help keep things in order.

Over to You

Nobody goes it alone in business, which means—whether it’s frequently or only every now and then—your brand is going to need to collaborate with external vendors. You’ve likely heard the horror stories about how those relationships can quickly spiral into a major disaster. But fortunately that doesn’t have to be the norm.

As the brand, it’s easy to point fingers. But, you’re equally as responsible for ensuring that your partnerships with agencies and tech vendors pan out the way they’re supposed to.

Put these tips and tactics into play, and you’re sure to increase your chances of a successful collaboration—ideally, with as few headaches, eye rolls, and clenched fists as possible.

“Remember that partnership is a two-way street,” concludes Craven, “Communicate clearly, be open-minded, listen, be respectful, and have some fun!”

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