The hard graft of collaboration is worth the struggle

Ahead of his session at next week's CommsCon, One Green Bean CEO Carl Ratcliff discusses how while client collaboration can at times seem impossible, it's one of the most important skills an agency can master.

The marketing world is full of ‘fat’ words.

Words that we use to showcase our dynamic ways. Buzz words that don’t really buzz at all. Instead, their over use blunts and loses meaning. We’re frequently striving to be more ‘strategic’, more ‘creative’, more ‘agile’.

When we end up speaking ‘buzz’ – and we are all guilty of it – we end up sparring in a vacuum without meaning. And meaning – the one thing agencies should sell to clients for the sake of commercial creative value – is throttled.

One of the words I’ve come to dwell on recently is ‘collaborate’. As clichéd as any other buzz word, but used even more intensively at present. There’s likely a cycle to these words, and it gets shorter and shorter as we hurtle through the speed of fashion.

Nevertheless, when asked to present about it at the forthcoming CommsCon, I have had to scratch my head and ask what does collaborate really mean? Does it mean, for instance, to work nicely together or simply, be nice, when working together or, something more useful?

It’s certainly something that is assumed to deliver best practice and outcome. (Indeed, there is a fair stack evidence to suggest creativity fares more originally when collaboration occurs; where contribution is additive, not group-think recessive).

Clients ask for it, yet – often – will walk away from its responsibility. ‘Go collaborate’ equates to, ‘go forth’. And an agency cohort is left saying, ‘no problem… we got this covered.’

But truth is, they often haven’t.

So, to help, can we describe criteria for meaningful collaboration?

First, let’s understand its true meaning: to work jointly, not independently. A joined up approach that shouldn’t mean every agency herds around the project with the answer. That’s not especially helpful to anyone at the outset.

Second, it requires another trite-ism – a lack of ego. Lacking ego doesn’t mean hiding your opinion. Rather, it means your agency must focus on the role it is playing in order to achieve the task set. Otherwise, if every agency runs at the task, then the task inevitably falls over. And anxiety and rivalries flair.

The trick comes in dislocating rivalry. And enabling clarity so that your agency team understands its position in the group cohort.
In effect, collaboration is not born of great team work, it is born of great teams working with clarity, together.

So, who is responsible for this clarity? Well it has to be the client, reinforced by their team.

As Darren Woolley recently said out in a LinkedIn post entitled “7 ways you might be demotivating your agency”:

“Agencies are usually more than happy to collaborate if:
1) it is appropriate and helpful to do so (rather than co-operating or simply co-ordinating to get the job done;
2) there is a clear brief and desired outcome articulated by the marketing team;
3) the financial consequences of collaboration are clearly defined and positive for every party involved.
Remove any of these critical factors, and collaboration quickly becomes demotivation. Ninja demotivators will get rid of all three by asking something like ‘Can’t you all just work together on this, for once?’”

Well said Darren.

Third, and crucially, collaboration is not kumbayah. Nor is it art. It requires hard graft. And a dedication to the role your agency has been employed for. Great collaborative outcome creates a sense of trust in an evolved cohort, including the client. And it is trust that goes on to deliver winning creativity; to appreciate that great ideas can indeed come from anywhere.

Collaboration allows you to argue, with respect, for what you perceive is better output. If you are part of the cohort employed by a client to answer a specific brief, then it’s your duty to point our possible peaks and rough associated with emergent ideas. You should always have an opinion. But better to hold it lightly.

Finally, if the cohort collaborates coherently and with conviction, it will inspire diversity and a wider view – key elements that extract bigger impact from any creative challenge. In the words of singer Michael Stipe, ‘Being in a band is always a compromise. Provided that the balance is good, what you lose in compromise, you gain by collaboration.’

Collaboration is gain through compromise then. A compromise that is established, with every agency partner, at the very start of any creative journey.

And if that sounds hard to swallow, then be prepared to find collaboration painful. And be prepared to earn a reputation that, ultimately, loses out.

Carl Ratcliff will be joined on stage by The Monkeys CEO Mark Green at Mumbrella’s upcoming CommsCon conference to discuss collaboration between advertising and PR. Tickets for the event can be purchased here.


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