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6 Strategies for Bringing on a Creative Agency

By Marielle Leon, Content Strategist

Guest post by Marielle Leon, a senior-level content marketing strategy specialist who previously worked in-house at Stripe, Glassdoor, Facebook, Pottery Barn, and more.

If you’re a marketing, content, or creative leader, you know there’s often too much on your “to-do list” and not enough resources to get it all done internally — especially within a large, layered organization. Bringing on external creative support can lighten workloads like magic, but onboarding a new agency or contractors sometimes feels like a second job. 

From running through bureaucratic red tape gauntlets to ramming head first into leadership buy-in challenges, it may feel like adding extra resources is more headache than its worth. But as someone who’s been on the inside of many “big company” marketing teams who needed external support, I’m here to tell you that it can be done… and it’s worth it.

In fact, onboarding a creative firm (and keeping them aboard) — especially when your team needed help yesterday — doesn’t have to be as heavy a lift as you may think. 

6 ways to onboard (and keep) your creative agency 

Careful planning, effective communication, and establishing meticulous processes can help make agency onboarding smoother — and get your team the help it needs fast. Here are some of my favorite strategies marketing leaders can use to have more favorable outcomes when onboarding (and retaining) a creative agency.

1. Get a mutual non-disclosure agreement signed 

It’s hard to have conversations about what the agency might do when you can’t divulge anything privileged and confidential. A signed and delivered non-disclosure agreement (NDA) gives you the green light to speak openly about your company’s needs and get a better understanding of how the agency plans to help. 

2. Ensure you get buy-in from other key players

Without the appropriate buy-in and support from other company teams that may be impacted by working with a new agency, agency onboarding may stall out before you even get through the vetting process.

To secure buy-in from the start (and set an agency up for success once onboarded), consider inviting both the agency and any affected internal teams or stakeholders to a lunch-and-learn session where they can get to know the agency’s capabilities and plans for the partnership. 

The presentation should show how the agency’s skills align with your business goals. It should also ideally include case studies, a plan for how the agency will help the company, and any information about how the agency plans to partner with the company (processes, tools, etc.). 

While most firms typically have an agency capabilities presentation ready to rock, don’t be shy about asking for a preview before the big meeting or giving them some pointers on how to win over your colleagues. After all, you know your company and teammates best. 

Remember, this meeting should serve several purposes, including: 

3. Ask for a detailed statement of work (SOW)

Once you’ve decided on an agency partner, it can be tempting to keep the statement of work, or SOW, vague so that you have the flexibility to bring the agency into a variety of projects that have yet to be scoped. Instead, I encourage you to be as specific as possible and get it all in writing — especially if you’re bringing the agency into a large organization.

When you start the onboarding process, your procurement, legal, and finance teams (and maybe even more teams if you have them!) will be examining every word of the agency’s SOW, letter of intent, contract, and any other pertinent documents needed to establish a working relationship together.

They’ll want to make sure you are specific about exactly what your agency will be working on, specific deliverables, how much it will cost, what the agreement is if the deliverable falls short of expectations, and how many creative rounds are included in the contract.

And if they don’t see everything lined up in nice little rows with all the T’s crossed and I’s dotted, it’s likely the SOW will get kicked back to you for clarity. Keep in mind that every time this happens, you’ll have to go back to the agency and your internal team, which can likely add a day or more to the onboarding process. 

You’ll also want to keep in mind any documents the agency requires to help protect their side of the partnership — such as letters of intent, contracts, and other documents that deal with how they’ll be paid, the rights you have to their creative work, approval timelines, and more. While some agencies are more than happy to use an SOW as the basis for your agreement, other agencies may have specific paperwork they require your in-house team to review, agree to, and ultimately sign. 

4. Never let the process stall

When you’re finally getting executive signoff on the budget and the contract, there’s a good chance you’ll encounter some snags. Think insanely convoluted processes, logistical rigamarole, and seemingly impenetrable ironclad platforms (one of which is literally called Ironclad). 

Don’t let these roadblocks deter you. Keep putting one foot in front of the other, or you’ll lose any momentum you’ve built up. Whatever is thrown your way, handle it. And handle it today, not tomorrow. And keep on walking — through hellfire if you must.

If you pause to rest for even a moment or get stuck in the maze, you could watch everything unravel right before your eyes. Processes may derail or cease altogether. And this can cause your entire agency dream to languish and potentially ultimately vanish into thin air. (It’s true! I’ve seen it happen more than once.) 

But if you keep at it, and never let your foot off the gas, you may just get to see the agency through to the other side. It takes tenacity — from both you and your agency partner.  

5. Keep tabs on your agency

Yes, results matter. You’ll want to track any tangible metrics that demonstrate the ROI of the agency you tapped for help. Whether this is for a campaign or a year-long initiative, keep tabs on any data you can get your hands on. Document as much as you can, especially for quick projects that you may forget once you’ve moved on to something new. 

It’s also your job to know exactly what the agency is doing at all times, including how they’re spending time on your dollar. Be meticulous when it comes to tracking agency hours, time spent on each project, and invoice details, including when it was submitted and paid. 

Since most agencies track “billable hours,” it’s likely this information is easily accessible. And if you need details that go beyond the invoice, such as for a leadership meeting, or quarterly review, don’t be afraid to ask. 

Some types of companies, like publicly traded organizations or government agencies, are sometimes required by law or internal protocols to audit agency hours. Remember, your agency is here to help you and will likely be more than happy to provide full transparency on how your funds are being spent.

6. Be ready to defend the spend

This is just part of the job. At big companies, if you want your new agency partner to stick around for the long term, you have to be ready at a moment’s notice to come to their defense. This is why keeping pristine documentation is key. 

Trust me, there will come a day when budgets are being scrutinized, and you need to have a can of Whoopass® in your pocket at all times. Arm yourself with some bullet-proof explainer copy that backs up how you’re using the agency, why you’re using the agency, and the fruits of the partnership.

Keep a few robust bullet points on every reason your agency is crushing it for you, so when you get a Slack message out of nowhere or you’re questioned in a meeting, you can say without missing a beat:

“Oh, yes! Our agency has developed 12 assets this year, each of which has outperformed every KPI. We’ve also been able to build our pipeline by X% since deploying the campaign that included the video, the infographic, and the guide.”

Look for ways to sing your agency’s praises and explain why they’re indispensable. Consider this example to showcase your agency’s awesomeness: 

“Our agency is fully embedded in our company. They know our messaging guidelines inside and out, adhere fully to our style guide, and eliminate the need for two extra layers of review. I am also pleased to share that this agency was able to complete our annual guide in 22 hours instead of the 38 hours it took our former agency to complete it last year — which adds up to a savings of $4200!” 

And remember, the more you stick by the good work your agency is doing, the more internal stakeholders and executives will see you as a leader and a do-er who is scrappy and effective, which is great for your career growth. It also might help you keep your battle-tested trusty agency around for another year and save you the time and headache of going through the onboarding process all over again.

The bottom line

As a marketer, remember you’re in charge of managing your agency — from the onboarding to the everyday. When done right, these strategies can help you boost internal credibility, get the most bang for your buck with agency dollars, and ideally develop a long-term and productive relationship with the agency. (Or in some cases, show you that this may not be the best agency choice after all and prompt you to find an even better agency partner!) Have more ideas on how to be successful onboarding (and keeping) an agency? Shoot us an email at hello@pinwheelagency.com.

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Let’s set up a call. We’ll listen carefully and offer our honest perspective.