How do I set realistic expectations for my agency and my team?

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Setting good expectations with your new agency is crucial for a successful partnership. 

First, a word about “partnership.” Often, agencies and clients use this term to describe their collaboration, but in reality, many are primarily referring to an a one-sided relationship. Few ever achieve what I would really consider a healthy “partnership.” In the worst case, the client-partner relationship involves the client ordering an agency around, pushing them to perform mostly tactical things, and hefting all of the risk in their direction. In the best case, the client-partner partnership involves strong cooperation, shared risk and reward, and a thoughtful division of labor. Healthy partnerships are achieved when both sides are able to effectively communicate with each other about the work and take responsibility of their end.

So, as you dig in and start working with an agency, think about which you want. Are you looking for a relationship or a partnership?

Here are five things you should do as you begin to build a partnership with your agency:

1. Clearly Define Your Objectives: Every journey, whether it’s an extensive annual strategy or a succinct project requires a well defined map. Setting clear objectives for any partnership or activity is your chance to plot the course for a great adventure. Begin by working with the agency to articulate your project objectives in detail. Your objectives should answer the question, “how will we know if we were successful when this is done?” Clearly communicate your goals, desired outcomes, and any specific metrics or benchmarks you want to achieve. Provide the agency with as much information as possible to help them understand your vision and align their efforts accordingly.

If your goal is to orchestrate an event amplifying your organization’s voice, for example, consider that while the agency might have an initial direction, a deeper dive into specifics will elevate the execution. If you want eye-catching visuals and engaging social media campaigns with impactful content, you’ll need to share your vision with them (in detail), express how you want to come across to the audience and exactly why you are doing that. The more details you provide, the better they can tailor their strategies to match your enthusiasm and achieve those shared goals.

2. Provide a Detailed Creative Brief: Now that you’re on course for a great adventure, think of the creative brief as a tactical treasure map leading to success. There may be plenty of points along the way where you might decide to change course, but making sure you know when and where those are will ensure you stay on track.

A creative brief serves as this map for the agency and your team to do your work. It outlines a creative project’s requirements, target audience, brand guidelines, messaging, measurement considerations, and any other pertinent information. In your creative brief, be sure to share your organization’s specific story around this event or artifact, highlight the emotions you want to evoke, and even mention your favorite colors or elements. Giving the agency these insights helps the agency weave your organization’s personality into the video, making it an authentic representation of your mission. If the agency can grasp your expectations, they can deliver work that meets your vision, in a measurable way.

3. Establish Realistic Timelines: Like planning an unforgettable adventure, setting a realistic timeline requires balancing excitement with practicality. Communicate any important milestones or deadlines you have in mind. Understand that creative work requires time for ideation, revisions, and production, so allow for flexibility while still setting reasonable expectations for delivery dates. Be realistic about your team’s approval timelines. Both you and the agency are excited to create something exceptional, but you have to discuss your needs and any upcoming events or campaigns that could influence the launch date. Together, craft a timeline that allows for creativity to blossom without rushing the journey.

And, please, let me beg of you the following, on behalf of all of the agency project managers on the planet. Some day, in the next year the agency will deliver something late and it will make you upset. You should definitely tell them. But, as you consider the tone you use, please ask yourself how many times before that moment you delivered things late or half-done to the agency. In my experience, for every time my team delivers something late, our clients deliver things late seven times. We all want to deliver great results and we’re all human. Please remember that. And, thank you.

4. Communicate Budget Constraints: Navigating budget constraints is like finding clever ways to make a little go a long way. Don’t be shy about the budget — be honest and you’ll be met with realistic possibilities. The agency will appreciate your honesty and can offer creative solutions that match your financial scope while ensuring the objective outcomes feel like a million bucks.

Sometimes I hear clients say, “I don’t want to tell you how much I have because you’ll just tell me it costs that whole amount. Instead, I want you to give me your best, competitive price.” I understand the sentiment of course, but unless you have endless buckets of money to dump on a fire (and some organizations do) it’s more likely that your budget is just enough to do a good job. Instead of playing a game concealing your budget, establish trust with your service provider. If you feel confident in their ability to provide accurate estimates, there’s no need for secrecy. Just communicate your budget, and they can tailor the scope of work accordingly. In a healthy partnership, you should feel comfortable discussing and negotiating estimates for future projects.

5. Maintain Open, Timely, and Collaborative Communication: Think of open communication as building a strong bridge of trust between your team and the agency. Be responsive to the agency’s requests for information, feedback, or clarification. Provide timely and constructive feedback on their work to keep the project moving forward smoothly. When you maintain a flow of open communication, you’ll see how both sides become more attuned to each other’s needs, leading to a harmonious partnership and outstanding results.

Setting clear expectations is a two-way process that forms the foundation of a successful partnership with your agency. Listen to their input and be open to their expertise and ideas. Cultivate open communication and stay responsive to their queries and feedback. By embracing their creativity and treating them as genuine partners, you’ll foster a collaborative environment that leads to meaningful impact. Keep the relationship evolving, reassess goals together, and celebrate milestones as you work towards shared success. With clear expectations and open communication, you’ll create a seamless and fulfilling collaboration that leaves both your team and the agency inspired and proud of the work you achieve together.

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