How to get the best out of Agency Partners

13 February 2018 by Joan Fahey

How to get the best out of Agency Partners


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Hosted by Alternatives Digital Talent Team; Joan Fahey and Oran Carolan and moderated by Charley Stoney, Managing Director of Alternatives, this was the third in our series of Digital Think Tanks attended by 20 Senior Digital Leaders from a range of sectors including Banking, Insurance, FMCG, Travel, Retail, Telecoms and Media. The topic for this session was ‘How to get the best out of Agency Partners’. There has been a lot of changes and challenges in the agency landscape and agency-client relationship of today and at this Think Tank we addressed some key questions arounds:

  • Current challenges with the agency-client model and how to overcome them
  • In-house vs agency partner: What works best?
  • Better ways to work together
  • The agency-client partnership: Tips for success
  • Remuneration models

We invited industry experts to be part of a Q&A panel discussion to discuss these challenges and give their views from both an agency and client perspective:

Our panel included:

  • Paul Higgins, Director of Consumer, Virgin Media Ireland
  • Jonathan Forrest, CEO, In the Company of Huskies
  • Carole Ann Clarke, Senior Consultant, Brand Learning

Q1: With all the challenges agencies are facing today along with changing client needs, what is the key to success to ensure a successful agency-client partnership?

All on the panel agreed, the most crucial factor to ensure a successful agency-client partnership in today’s world is having a strategic partnership. It’s not just about the discipline anymore, it’s about having a partnership where both sides have the same vision.Carole Ann Clarke from Brand Learning pointed out ‘There is a real need for strategic partnerships with agencies with a big focus on customer experience. There are lots of changes happening, each discipline is trying to find their space and the traditional agency model is melting’. She also added that as a client you need to base your plans on the customer’s journey and have a strong facilitator in-house to help manage the process and communications with your agency partners.

In her previous role as Head of Consumer & Shopper Digital Marketing at Coca-Cola, Carole Ann sought out specialist agency people as opposed to working with a particular agency when choosing Coca-Cola’s partners. Collaboration is very important and both sides need to be on the same page and believe in what they do. If you work with multiple agencies, it’s about ‘joining all the dots’ and having that strategic connection. Having a ‘Facilitator of Process’ in-house is critical to succeed.

Paul Higgins from Virgin Media also supported this view ‘You need to ensure that everyone is going after the same goals, the issue isn’t everyone being geographically dispersed, its people going off with different views of what the end goal actually is.’

From an agency perspective, Jonathan Forrest from In the Company of Huskies added ‘The relationship with our clients is key. What is important for the relationship to work is a good Project Manager on the client side to facilitate things with their agency partners. Someone that can provide a solid brief and that understands transformation’. Jonathan also added that when clients are looking for the right agency partner today, they should be asking ‘Here is our vision. How can you help us?’. The lines in the agency landscape have become very grey so it’s more about an agency being able to truly connect with a clients’ overall business vision as opposed to just focusing on the disciplines.  

Q2. What are you doing different today to manage your agency partnerships?

As Director of Consumer for Virgin Media, Paul manages multiple agency partnerships. He emphasises, ‘It’s more about who are the right people with the right skills across all our agencies. I look to find people who are strong and know the Irish customer and the cultural differences. It’s about everyone coming together and understanding ‘The Big Idea’. Paul has also found having agency partners sitting inhouse or working with a Strategic Planner who has the skills to look at things holistically has worked very well. He admits that in the past he has tried to load too much transactional work onto his agencies which resulted in increased costs and just simply didn’t work. ‘What I had to do was go back to basics and look at the strategic views’. A need to focus on the BIG TICKET strategic work not the small stuff’.

Q3.  If you were starting again and putting together an ‘Agency Dream Team’ how would you approach it?

Both Carole Ann and Paul shared very similar views when it comes to building out an agency dream team: 

  1. Start with a blank sheet and be very clear on what you need from an agency partner.
  2. Only partner with agencies whose philosophy and values align with your business.  If it isn’t there it won’t work!
  3. Place a stronger emphasis on a ‘getting to know’ process as opposed to the traditional agency pitch process.
  4. Look at an agencies strategic thinking - Is the agency thinking into the future
  5. Look at all options when it comes to a fee/reward structure and identify the model that works best for your business and for the agency.
  6. Partner with procurement from the outset – this is key as they can shut your plans down if Marketing & Procurement are not aligned.

Q4: So what about the In-house model?

In Paul’s experience, you need a very strong specialist team and skills for the in-house model to work. It needs to be process led with clarity between the in-house transactional tasks and the value add, strategic tasks required of 3rd party partners. While it can save you money it has to be well thought through and managed efficiently to work.

While Alternatives are working with a number of their clients to build their internal ‘agency’ skill so for BAU, transactional tasks, no-one else in the room had experience of building in-house creative teams.

Q5. What is the tender process like today and how are you approaching it?

From an agency perspective, Jonathan explained clients sometimes don’t recognise the amount of time that goes into a pitch process: ‘We can spend up to 500 hours prepping for a pitch so agencies really need to be selective and smart about which clients they invest this time in.  He added that it is really important there is alignment upfront on the pitch process itself and making sure there is proper briefing and Q&A sessions. A workshop process instead of a traditional pitch process can be a much better approach to a mutual understanding of needs and abilities.

The traditional Creative Pitch process is becoming outdated as the requirement of agencies is so much broader and evolved. No longer is it viable to appoint an agency based on one great idea in an artificial context. Agencies, regardless of discipline, are required to be thought leaders, analysts, disrupters, innovators and project managers as well as creative thinkers.

Carole Ann suggested asking agencies to prepare a White Paper on a specific topic is also a good way of assessing an agency’s thought leadership. Both Carole Ann and Paul stress that putting a greater focus on ‘getting to know’ the agencies is key and having ‘chemistry sessions’ should be an integral part of the process.  And if you do require a creative pitch, then clients should be prepared to contribute towards the cost.

Q6. What remuneration model has worked well for you?

In Carole Ann’s experience, different models work for different agencies, but a bonus structure keeps people motivated.  Weigh up all options and seek advice from key people in the industry. Carole Ann added that agencies have a responsibility to also drive the remuneration piece too so make sure you don’t undersell yourself!! Paul’s view is ‘Don’t over complicate it, it won’t work. Simple works, there are different ways but you need to understand the blend’.

From an agency perspective, Jonathan suggests offering different pricing options to clients that include both hard and soft KPI’s and get your agency team involved in the process. Your agency team should know how they are being measured and the model should always be evolving with the partnership.

Q7: How do you set performance KPI’s when working with multiple agencies?

Paul’s view on this is not to over complicate it and just make sure all your agency partners are focused on getting to the overall business objective. He adds though you do need to have your in-house processes in order across all functions involved for this to work.

Key takeaways….

  • A strategic partnership is the key to having a successful agency-client relationship.
  • Partner with agencies who share your business philosophy and values
  • Rethink how you approach the pitch process and put time into ‘getting to know’ your agencies and how they think strategically.
  • Have a strong facilitator in-house to manage the process and relationship between you and your agencies (as well as the agency to agency relationships).
  • Look at all options when it comes to a fee/reward structure and work together to identify the model that works best for your business and for the agency.
  • Don’t be precious about where the best ideas come from
  • Be sure to partner with procurement from the outset of any relationship so that the Marketing and Procurement goals are aligned.
  • If you do want to create an in-house team, focus on the BAU, transactional tasks, using your agencies for strategic BIG TICKET items.

If you would like to become involved in these sessions, please contact me at

Outputs from Alternatives Digital Think Tank by Joan Fahey, Senior Talent Manager