I want agency life to mean smiles, rainbows, and slaps on the back. But in a business that trades in collaborative intellectual output, that feelgood place doesn’t happen overnight. Over the past 11 years I’ve worked in marketing strategy and account management roles in Europe and the US, at shops like Mucho Design, Orbital BBDO, and EuroRSCG, and I’m now an account manager at Kalamuna. Over time I’ve picked up a thing or two about how agencies can do great work on time and on-budget, with more than enough feelgood to go around. Here are my three big tips on spreading the goodness.
Our Success Relies on “3Ts”
Agency success relies on so much, but in my experience, it comes down to these elements: trust, transparency, and teamwork. The first “T,” trust, relates to establishing trust with your client and with your internal team. The next one, transparency, is all about making sure everyone has access to project information and is on the same page. Last, we need teamwork. It’s easy to fall into silos, but great work and great relationships don’t come from them. When projects move fast and deadlines loom, I’ve seen agencies with these three essential foundations in place weather storms and come out smiling.
Our success is interdependent, so we should trust that we’re all going to do our best and follow through. In order for you to let me take responsibility for a part of a project in which you’ve invested your time, you’ve gotta know that “I got this.” And I should also know that you’ve got my back.
Working with my internal team, this undercurrent of support and trust should flow through everything we do. For example, if my team is working on several projects concurrently and need to focus on one to meet a deadline, my colleagues need to be able to trust that I can either work with our clients to put non-priority work on hold or otherwise re-jigger staffing so team members can focus on that one project. And I need to be able to do this in every similar case so that my colleagues know they can count on me. In turn, if I need team members to change course because a client relationship depends on it, I want to trust they’ll come through for me—not just that day, but every day.
Creating trust is important for the entire client-agency relationship. There are a lot of ways to do this, but here’s one: work with the client to set and agree upon reasonable expectations. If you’re managing the scope of a feature, talk about it and get clear on what it’s going to be and what it’s not going to be. If you’re talking about how much it’s going to cost to build that feature, listen to your client and agree on what both parties will accept. If you’re trying to estimate how long the work will take, engage your internal team leads and client to build the schedule together. In this way, you team up with the client to help build trust. Creating a good product takes a team effort, and if we don’t estimate together, accurately, we risk under-delivering or losing money on the project. Whether it’s with your internal team or your client, when you don’t build trust, it’s a lot easier to lose credibility, and once that’s gone, it’s a lot harder to get other things done.
Transparency is important in so many ways, and our agency explicitly exercises it in three major realms of activity. First, we should be transparent in our reporting. This means letting everyone in on estimated and used project hours at regular intervals. It also means regularly updating stakeholders on budgetary concerns, and any other information that could affect project outcomes and/or stakeholder satisfaction.
Next, we should be transparent with the work. In development projects, this means scheduling regular demos so that makers, agency staff and clients can see and review the work-in-progress, paving the way for the work ahead. At Kalamuna, we rely heavily on agile process management, which bakes-in transparency, and we apply it in varying degrees to non-development projects. So, at our company, it’s common to demo wireframes for a client weekly.
Transparency also means being open to constant feedback, both from our internal team and our client. This ensures constant improvement, not just intermittent improvements at the middle and end of a project. This constant tweaking drives creativity and experimentation, and acts as a tool to help others. Again, we’ve integrated tenets of agile management into most of our services, so transparency and iteration is part and parcel of everything we do.
When we aren’t transparent, things fall apart. Imagine a budget that’s never seen. As you work, hours burn away and no one keeps tabs on the money. When you don’t keep the budget out in the open, you run the risk of having to stop work and end the project prematurely because you’ve run out of money.
Now, imagine a lack of transparency with the work, not just the budget. Imagine keeping the work inside the agency until it’s “finished.” If the client only got to see the work at the “end” of the project, chances are that you’d have been working off of many, many assumptions, leading to an end product that would have never taken into consideration client concerns that you’d have never known. In sum, keeping agency operations opaque leads to burned budgets, unhappy clients and a frustrated team.
The word “teamwork” gets a lot of lip service in meetings, company guidebooks, sports commentary, and a bunch of other places, and so it’s easy to ignore. But we can’t—it’s too important. If we can’t play together, we can’t win together. Great teams communicate. They are also cross-functional, autonomous, empowered. And they act with a transcendent purpose.
No matter what your role on a project, communicating clearly and with a positive vibe can lend momentum to a project. Everyone has a hand in building and maintaining morale, and any one person can bring down the vibe if they unload negativity onto others. It’s also important to be explicit that you are open to communication. People need assurance that we all have confidence in each other, and that they can rely on you to discuss problems with a level head.
How do we promote cross-functionality? Everyone has a specialization, but that doesn’t mean we should work in silos. We’re better together. Cross-functional teams include people from different departments and disciplines, and roles within the organization’s hierarchy. Each team member lends his or her knowledge in support of a project goal, supporting other members and complementing their skills.
Cross-functional teams should be autonomous. This means that while they work in service to the larger agency’s goals and parameters, a team should steer the course of a project as it sees fit. Enabling team autonomy helps members make the best decisions for the work. When they “own” the work, they’re more engaged, they care more, and thus put more of their energy and identity into it. We want this.
To be autonomous, a team must feel empowered. That means they should be able to make independent decisions, as a group or as individual team members, and that arguing about what to do is normal. We work in the knowledge sector, and the best work comes out of questions and deliberations. No one should feel hemmed in by the status quo.
And as for this “transcendent purpose” thing: Before I came to Kalamuna, I worked for clients in the automotive sector as well as for alcohol brands. While it was exciting to see how huge budgets could fuel global, trans-media campaigns, selling cars and rum made it hard to have a transcendent purpose other than to “do good creative” and make clients happy. It was all right for a while, but I lacked a deep connection to it. If that works for you, cool. Acting with a transcendent purpose is easier for me now at Kalamuna because I‘m working for universities, non-profits and mission-driven organizations. At the end of the day, I can say I helped educate people or improve their circumstances. That is why I feel proud of working with UC Berkeley, Stanford and UCSF. “Improving lives” doesn’t necessarily have to be your transcendent purpose, of course. But having one that everyone on the team generally agrees on will help motivate them and help them produce better work.
Taking Transparency, Trust and Teamwork to Your Agency
I hope the tips I’ve shared here on trust, transparency and teamwork are of use to you agency and client-side folks trying to do good. Some of these concepts may already be working in your company, some of them might be more aspirational. I encourage experimentation with agency process to see what will work for your particular situation. If all-hands meetings aren’t paying off part of your “teamwork” goals, come up with some new ideas or ask colleagues what’s worked in the past. Try something else. (What if you discover that everyone really likes trust falls?)
And of course, I wouldn’t be a good account manager if I didn’t tell you that if you’re looking for an agency that can put some muscle behind your values, you should get in touch. We succeed together because your values are our values. And together, we make the difference.
If you want to bat around ideas, share examples, or offer feedback on this post, please reach out to me on Twitter at @Esther_Vicent