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Pete Stein President, East Twitter

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Frederic Bonn Executive Creative Director Twitter
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A Wake-Up Call
for Collaboration

The ability to integrate creative, media and technology to meet the demands of your always-on consumer is ideal. However, most traditional lead agencies don’t have those capabilities just yet, nor are most digital agencies prepared to handle lead agency duties. Coordination of your agencies is not enough — you need to move more aggressively toward true collaboration. We’ve identified five big barriers to essential agency collaboration.

Is agency collaboration something you struggle with?

People now consume 12 hours of media in just 9 hours of elapsed time, according to a recent Harvard Business Review study.[1] Consumers use a lot of media types all at once and now brands need to catch up. To do so, marketers must change how they work with their agencies.

If you are a CMO or a brand leader, you are probably using multiple agencies to meet the demands of your always-on consumer. A lead agency that can integrate creativity, media and technology would be a great solution, but traditional lead agencies aren’t yet capable. In 2009, Forrester Research set off a mini industry tempest when it reported that only 23 percent of interactive marketers felt traditional agencies were equipped to handle interactive marketing work.[2] Fast forward two years and Forrester still reports that only 30 percent of those surveyed use their traditional agencies for digital marketing, and in fact 68 percent of those marketers work with two or more agencies. Some reportedly have more than 15 agencies on their interactive rosters.[3] By the same token, most digital agencies aren’t yet ready to handle lead agency duties. In three to five years, the landscape will look different, but for now marketers have to deal with a patchwork of agencies that are channel specialists and all the complexity that comes from that.

What can you do now to drive the integration of creativity, media and technology that you need to truly engage consumers? Coordination of agencies is not enough — you need to move more aggressively toward collaboration. And guess what? Agency folk want more collaboration — or at least they claim they do.

So, what are you waiting for? If you are a CMO or brand leader and you’re not pushing your agencies for deep collaboration, you’re missing out on a big opportunity.

We have seen five big barriers to collaboration:

1. Client experience/confidence

As a brand marketer, you probably have more confidence in one area of the marketing mix or the other. Perhaps you are a digital native who lives and breathes ones and zeroes, and now you’ve been promoted to look after the whole mix. Or maybe you’re a “traditional” marketer with a strong legacy of brand building, but you’ve had your run with TV commercials. You find digital exciting, but daunting and maybe even a bit over-hyped. Wouldn’t life be better if your agencies were bringing truly integrated ideas to you?

2. Cultural inertia

Success can dull the competitive edge. We have seen many marketers and their agency teams not adapt fast enough because they haven’t had to. Sometimes a great track record can put you in a position for future failure. Similarly, agencies, particularly account people, are protective of their turf. Unless they feel their piece of the pie is protected, change will be difficult.

3. Above-the-line agency snobbery

Some above-the-line agency teams believe that: 1) digital agencies don’t have anything of value to contribute to the conversation, or that 2) their team is already leading the way in digital.

4. Digital agency lives in a digital bubble

Digital agency teams tend to fall down in two places: 1) they don’t fully respect the power of offline communications, or 2) they aren’t able to lift out of the tactical and into the strategic, and they fail to put their work in this broader strategic context. This leads clients and above-the-line agencies to keep them in their digital silo.

5. Client silos

Clients are often organized into silos that make it very difficult to plan with a focus on how the consumer and the brand should engage. There are different client owners for traditional creative, digital creative, media, PR and other elements of the mix, too. When agencies report into different silos, true collaboration will not occur.

Despite these barriers, we have had success with our clients and our agency partners. We recently formalized our partnership with BBH at Unilever, a client with whom we’ve had a lot of success rethinking the model. Here are some lessons we’ve learned on getting the best work out of the right people:

Establish the process. In order to get the most out of each agency, make sure you define a clear process for them to work together. You need to clarify the boundaries of their engagement, expectations and ownership. One exercise we went through with a partner agency was to play the “what if” game. We talked through all of the worst-case scenarios we could imagine and how we would handle them when things went wrong. It was a fun game and a great way to talk through problems in an environment where emotions weren’t running high. While you’re at it, examine your own organization. Agencies tend to organize around their clients, so if your organization is siloed, it’s likely that your agencies will be, too. Even if you don’t change your structure, make sure your organization is aligned and not operating in silos defined by channel.

Demand creative and media collaboration. Creative collaboration starts with a solid brief delivered to all agencies simultaneously. Unearthing an insight that reflects true audience behaviors is critical to crafting a relevant message, no matter who makes it or when it’s launched. The brief needs to nail the business objectives, brand DNA and the digital behaviors — with the goal of tapping into the rituals that are ripe territory for the brand. We recently found that if we allow the above-the-line agency to own the brand DNA, we can own the digital behaviors, thereby making sure they are embedded into the ideas. This will enable your creative teams to come back with a true creative platform — not just a single execution that’s stretched across channels. One-hit television campaigns or social campaigns do not a platform make. Don’t settle for anything less than a robust creative platform. Huge bonus points if your media agency is part of the team. A successful channel plan is one that considers how to leverage each channel in a way that makes the whole greater than the parts. You’ll find that when media and creative teams work together, you’ll get deeper consumer engagement. And just to be certain that the ideas are inherently social and engaging, we have found it beneficial to include explanations in the brief. Use the brief to articulate why the insights point toward engagement.

Protect compensation and provide incentives that drive alignment. Incentives are a powerful lever that should be pushed to drive behavior. Agencies should be rewarded for collaboration. Ultimately they need to be rewarded for great work and business impact, but consider this to be part of a journey. They need to know that their piece of the business is protected. While strategy is shared, execution should be handled by channel experts so that change is managed gradually. In addition to giving agencies a safety net, give them a reason to jump higher. For one client we (us and the ATL agency both) receive a bonus if we help the client exceed key business targets.

Keep a slush fund. A key to successful marketing is figuring out how to integrate always-on and episodic (campaign-based) communications. Great creative platforms should have plenty of legs and should be responsive to consumer engagement. This creates a great opportunity for agency collaboration, but as the client you need to set aside some money in order to create relevant content or utilities that can stoke a fire that you may have created. When we created the Mercedes–Benz Tweet Race last year, we saw that there was a lot of curiosity about the tweet-powered vehicles. We jumped on the buzz and created a spoof video of German engineers driving cars with their mobile devices. It helped ignite a lot of interest. You need to start planning for what you can’t plan.

Create urgency. Without a substantial reason to change behavior, it will not change. You, the client, have the greatest ability to create urgency. You need to set a high bar. For instance, point to competitors or other brands that are doing it well. And you need to shift the risk. Tell your agencies that if they fail by trying something new and different, you will embrace it, but if they fail by not collaborating, it will be a strike against them.

In the end, agency collaboration is rooted in something very fundamental — trust. Your agencies need to trust each other to produce great work. By setting up a clear process, demanding creative collaboration, and planning for the unplanned, you can go a long way toward setting up the structure and incentives that your agencies need to build trust amongst each other. With a solid foundation in place you can count on your agencies to do their job exceptionally well.



  1. ˆ “How Internet Junkies will Save Television,” Harvard Business Review.
  2. ˆ Sean Corocan, “The State of Interactive Agencies,” Forrester, December 7, 2009.
  3. ˆ Sean Corocan, “How to Optimize your Interactive Agency Roster,” Forrester, May 27, 2011.