Agency collaboration, it’s a love and hate thing

Clients be forewarned: making agency rosters hum harmoniously requires effort and time. In this guest post, 303 MullenLowe CEO Nick Cleaver explains some of the structures and processes that lead to more effective inter agency collaboration.

Agency collaboration, it’s a love and hate thing.


The issue of inter-agency collaboration seems to be something of a hot topic. Well that’s certainly what I discovered when a throw-away comment of mine at the Mumbrella Finance Marketing Summit aroused such a passionate response.

With my tongue planted firmly in my cheek, I did respond to a client’s comments that suggested their multiple agency roster was just a harmonious love-fest by provocatively suggesting that I, along with most agencies, hated the idea.

Strong words indeed, and something of an overstatement and simplification of the actual points I went on to make. The simple truth is agency collaboration can work effectively if the right structures and processes are put in place but can be a total bun fight if there is a belief any disagreements will just miraculously sort themselves out.

Agencies are, after all, highly competitive by nature, so will approach a new agency roster populated with their adversaries with a healthy degree of cynicism and mistrust.

Over the years I’ve experienced rosters that have worked so well, I could even say l’ve loved them, and I’ve also experienced too many rosters that have been destructive, and I’ve hated them. So, in truth, the emotions of love and hate are at play.budget-direct_captain-risky

To experience more love than hate you might bear in mind some simple dynamics and some basic ground rules. There’s plenty of free advice out there for you to draw on and many a willing consultant happy to earn a quid out of dispensing that advice as well as offering to referee the potential melee.

Essentially that advice can be summarised as follows:

Appoint agencies to the roster with clearly defined roles and responsibilities; establish clear rules of engagement; make sure your brief has clear KPI’s and everyone knows what the team is collectively driving to achieve; sort out the budget division early to avoid fights over money and be prepared to invest the time in ongoing dialogue with the group over the work and how it’s integrating together.

Ensure everyone is working to the same strategy and embracing the same idea – albeit you may not be looking for matching luggage, but you do want a synergy in the campaign. Over time, trust levels will grow -especially if the collective outputs are seen to be working and delivering business results.

But clients be forewarned: to make it hum harmoniously you will need to apply effort and time to make it work. It can, in reality, be an expensive model to manage. And if you simply have agencies there to openly compete for work things could turn ugly very quickly – especially if you’re a smaller client with not a lot of work to go round!

There are, of course, alternative ways of delivering multi-channeled, integrated campaigns that require less time and less effort to create.

If you are a client with a smaller or mid-sized budget think about appointing a full service agency, and if you’re a larger – perhaps global – brand think of a holding company solution.

First, to the full-service model. Bringing media and creative skills back together is the foundation of a full-service offering and when combined with technology, data and analytics skills can become the font of highly creative channel agnostic thinking.

For clients with smaller marketing departments and less time and money to spend integrating competing interests, this can be nirvana.

I’m a long-time advocate of this model and have built a successful ad business off the back of it. We’ve discovered a significant and growing segment of clients discovering the advantages of this approach. I’m not so naïve; however, to think it’s a model for every client.


So as an agency we also work collaboratively on multi-agency rosters to great effect – as we do with Audi.

For too long creative and media agencies have fought one another for the role of lead strategic partner, often duplicating each other’s efforts with identical strategy processes.

To make the situation worse, media agencies are now increasingly offering up the creative work as well, either through publisher-generated content or their own internal efforts.

It was always a farce separating the two disciplines, and over the next few years it’ll all come back together – most probably with powerful and highly-profitable media companies building their creative capabilities.

For creative agencies with no media capabilities that could be a very dark day indeed, but that’s another story.

If you are hesitant about the everything under one roof model there is, of course, for larger, global clients the option of everything under one holding company model.

Holding company-led integrated teams offer considerable advantages. They have the breadth of business interests to draw on best-in-class specialist resources and the financial control and authority to build a team-driven by genuine mutual self-interest.

As a client it’s reassuring to know someone else is managing the team dynamics. In this instance, of course, there’s the size and scale to build a dedicated team and the opportunity to house that team in one location.
I recently witnessed the power and effectiveness of this model with IPG bringing together Team Ignite, which pitched and won the global business for Harley-Davidson.

We participated in that cohesive effort. Shelley Paxton, VP global marketing and brand at Harley-Davidson summed up the advantages, “We were not looking at the key disciplines in silos. Creative, digital and media absolutely has to be a single strategy to live together in this day and age.”

She added the holding company solution delivered agencies willing to work together in an integrated fashion under the same P&L.

The frustration of endeavouring to manage competing agencies was obviously a major factor in McDonalds’ recent decision to seek an Omnicom solution.

I know from the days of working on this business about the Australian client’s frustration at its creative and media agencies continually competing and trying to grab the ascendency.

Bringing them together into one team will resolve this issue, and bringing content creators from The New York Times as well as social and tech partners such as Facebook and Google into the fold should add a real dynamism to the relationship.

Ultimately, clients have to determine what approach is right for them and what structure can deliver the best outcomes, most cost efficiently, with the minimum of fuss.

Whichever way they choose they should approach the issue of agency collaboration with eyes wide open. For agencies, being asked to work harmoniously with competitors can be a very vexing challenge and a scenario they can absolutely hate; however, if there is a legitimate rationale for the collaboration and sound ground rules put in place it really can be one big love fest. Well, almost!

Nick Cleaver is the CEO at 303 MullenLowe Australia


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