How to run a project that involves a multi-agency team

Ewan Collinge

Mar 24, 2021

Many projects involve multiple agencies to deliver different parts of the work required. Most agencies specialise in one or two areas, so if your project requires a combination of expertise (product development, branding and marketing is a typical mix for digital product launches) then there’s a good chance you’ll need multiple agencies working together to deliver it.

It’s therefore important that you choose agencies that are capable in their own right but also that will collaborate well with each other. And it’s on you as the client to manage them effectively to ensure that you get the best end result for your project.

The extent to which different agencies’ work overlaps depends on the requirements of your project. In our area of expertise – digital product development – there is typically a blurry line between product, marketing and brand. In the multi-platform digital age these form part of a single customer experience that happens wherever someone happens to interact with your brand - whether it’s through your app, website, a social ad, an in-store experience or any other touchpoint. There’s not a clear distinction so it’s important the teams working on each area are in sync.

For example, your marketing agency may be doing a great job of testing and optimising ads to drive traffic to your website. But if your digital product studio has built a landing page that doesn’t convert well due to bad UX or by not matching the messaging of the ads then that effort is wasted. Get the two agencies to synchronise their work, share insights and feedback results to each other and you will win more customers.

On a more creative level, many projects require a shared vision that needs to be developed separately by agencies working on different parts of your business. For example, you may have a branding agency in charge of creating your “brand” (the logo, colour palette, typography, image style etc), and a digital agency designing the UX/UI of the product and your marketing website.

There is significant crossover between these tasks and it’s important the two agencies are able to collaborate well. The branding agency needs to deliver a brand that looks great wherever it’s going to be used - the website, tube ads, sales decks, packaging etc. This also includes being applied to the UX/UI of the product which, if you’re a tech-focused business, may be where the majority of your customer interactions happen. If your branding agency has delivered a set of brand guidelines that look great in some places but don’t translate well into your actual product then there’s a big problem.

On the other side, your digital agency needs to design a product that’s aligned with the brand vision and the business strategy that underpins it. If the brand has been painstakingly crafted to communicate, let’s say - how easy and simple your offering is compared to your competitors but this isn’t reflected in the user experience, then no amount of nicely designed branding will change the user’s negative perception of your product.

In short, there is often a significant crossover between the work of different agencies and it’s key to the success of your project that everyone is aligned and working with each other to produce quality work.

When it goes well, when it goes badly

When agencies work well together they push each other to produce the best work, deliver on time and within budget, and also free you up to work on other parts of your business – safe in the knowledge that they are collaborating smoothly.

When it goes badly it can undermine the quality of the work, cause deadlines and budgets to slip, and give you a management headache as you try to keep things on track. In the worst cases it can result in projects stumbling or stalling which, particularly for startups, can be an existential threat.

We’ve worked in many agency teams and have seen it done well and badly. These are some of the lessons we’ve learnt along the way and our advice for ensuring it goes well for you.

Potential problems

Different project management approaches

Like all organisations, different agencies have different approaches. There are some widely used project management methodologies (such as scrum and agile in software development) but in reality it is rare to find agencies that run projects in exactly the same way.

Different styles of project management can mean projects “flow” in a different way. This might be when key decisions are made, when feedback is required, how much interaction is expected etc. It’s important to be aware of what each agency expects of you (and each other) and ensure everyone is as in sync as possible.

Agencies may also use different tools for the same job. One might use Word for documents, Teams for video calls and emails for communication. Another might use Google Docs, Zoom and Slack. One team might rely on old school to-do lists to manage tasks, another might have a Jira board visible to everyone.

While broadly similar the small differences can cause issues. Minor friction-adding annoyances - formatting errors when opening Word docs in Google, not having the latest version of Zoom installed, information lost in long email threads - are small on their own but can have a big impact on productivity when you add them all together over the course of a project. The time required to get used to some new software up front might save a lot of time later in confusion and frustration.

Another issue can be working across timezones. If one team is blocked because the person they need to speak to isn’t available - that’s lost time that you’re paying for. If two teams are perpetually out of sync it can be exhausting trying to chase them in the short window of time during which they overlap.

Blockers

This (as you can probably guess) is when one agency can’t progress because they’re waiting on something from another agency, typically a decision, asset or piece of information. This can happen for many reasons but pretty much comes down to that either the work hasn’t yet been done or it’s been done but not shared with whoever needs it.

If work hasn’t been done this could be a failure to plan timelines between the two agencies, or it may be that one agency is behind schedule. Either way the delay could cost valuable time and have a domino effect on the ability of both agencies to deliver down the line.

If work hasn’t been shared it may be that the person responsible for providing it hasn’t done so. Or the fault may lie with the other party not having communicated their requirement. It’s a very boring problem - but it comes up a lot and so is important to be aware of.

Treading on toes

As when managing people in any context you need to consider people’s feelings, motivations and professional pride to get the best out of them and not cause problems. If someone feels like their opinion, work or agreed role on the project isn’t being respected they may, quite rightly, get frustrated. This can damage your relationship with them and ultimately undermine the quality of the work you end up with.

So you need to consider how you treat your agency partners. You also need to think about how you allow and encourage them to treat each other. Most agencies will see themselves as working “with” you rather than “for” you. They are professionals there to do a great job and help your business to succeed. A level of respect should be maintained between all parties involved, and it’s your job as the central pivot in the relationship to keep everyone happy. It’s important that you clearly define roles and responsibilities and that they are stuck to. As the client you benefit most when everyone buys into the project, feels like their contribution is valued and takes ownership for their part of it

When managing relationships between agencies you want to avoid “treading on toes” - when one team feels their work is being undermined or muscled-in on by another. Perhaps key decisions are not being discussed with the relevant person or one agency feels their opinion isn’t being listened to. It might be that they think work produced by another agency is sub-standard and that it will reflect badly on them. It could be an issue around tone and behaviour - perhaps someone is criticising others or throwing their weight around when it’s not their place.

Whatever the issue it’s important to keep on top of relationships and act as a mediator where necessary. Fairness and transparency will always work best but you shouldn’t be afraid to play the “I’m the client and this is my decision” card to resolve a dispute if needed. Remember that you want your agencies to be spending their energy trying to please you, not having disputes with each other.

Chemistry

It’s important to encourage and facilitate chemistry between your agencies. This is particularly important if there is a creative element to the work but is key whatever your project involves. At the end of the day, teams that work well together produce better work. If you’ve chosen competent agencies each should be at the top of their game and bring different expertise and perspectives to the table. Your task is to unlock this potential and produce something greater than the sum of its parts.

When one agency is delivering great work it encourages others to step up to the plate. It encourages healthy competition and sets the bar high. It also adds momentum and optimism to the project – if it looks like this project is going to be a success the rewards are higher for the agencies involved. Agencies live and die based on their portfolios – they will go the extra mile if they think they are going to be part of a success story.

On the creative side, it’s also important that agencies complement each other’s skills and are able to generate ideas together. The ideal dynamic is when each agency adds something new and valuable whenever they are handed the baton. If the branding agency produces amazing brand assets, then the product agency does a great job applying them to the UX/UI and adds some new idea of their own, which then inspires the marketing agency etc - then you have the ingredients of a successful project.

How to do it well

Encourage transparency

Transparency is a great way to hold everyone accountable, create an atmosphere of trust and maximise efficiency. If everyone knows what everyone else is up to then it means agencies can plan around each other’s priorities and are aware of what’s going on behind the scenes.

To achieve this it’s up to you to encourage a culture of transparency by making it clear that it’s important to you and is how you’d like the project to be run. In practical terms this can be achieved by having a public project management task board (such as Jira or Trello), or for a more basic solution – a simple shared document that tracks progress and is regularly updated.

Having to state how you’ve been spending your time (in a weekly catch up or a shared document) can also be a great way to ensure you do the work you’ve promised and have progress to report. No one wants to look stupid in front of their client or peers!

Tips:

  • Shared task board
  • Weekly or monthly “all agency” status call
  • Encourage sharing “work in progress” early and often (as opposed to Mad Men-style “big reveals”)

Clear roles and responsibilities

Clarify who’s doing what and who has ultimate responsibility for different areas of your project. This gives you the power to hold someone accountable for delivery, while also empowering that person by saying that you trust them to be in charge of it.

It also ensures that potential conflicts are identified early on. If two people are responsible for the same thing then perhaps you need to rethink the way you’ve structured your project.

On a simpler note it can also just be helpful to have it written down who’s doing what. At the start of a project when people are still getting to know each other it’s much easier if you can check a document to work out exactly who to speak to about a particular thing. It can also be helpful for people who join the project later on and need to get up to speed with what’s going on. In general it’s good to, at some point, state in clear terms exactly what your role is as these things often get left unsaid after introductory conversations.

There are a few frameworks you can use to define roles and responsibilities. The RACI is a well-established framework structured around four categories of stakeholder for each area of a project: responsible, accountable, consulted, and informed. This can be a tad heavy for most scenarios but makes sense for certain types of project - such as when dealing with a large team or complex legacy processes.

We find a simple shared document with a table that has everyone’s name, job title, bullet point responsibilities, contact details and maybe a profile picture does the trick. We also like to start most projects with a little exercise that gets everyone to say who they are, what they’re good at and what their role is on the project.

Tips:

  • Shared roles & responsibilities document
  • RACI
  • Collaborative authoring of role & responsibilities

Don’t always be the communication middle-man

As the client, you don’t need to be involved in every conversation. If you can get your agencies talking directly to each other it saves a lot of time for all involved. It reduces the potential for confusion and “Chinese whispers” as you try to communicate from one person to the other.

It also encourages teamwork and collaboration as people from different teams form working relationships without you always having to be present. This is beneficial in terms of chemistry and knowledge sharing, and also helps to avoid something which happens frequently: the client causing a bottleneck because everything has to go through them. If people are comfortable reaching out to the relevant person without feeling they have to go via you then things tend to work more smoothly.

There are various ways you can encourage communication between your agency teams. The first is to make sure they have been properly introduced to each other. Have a meeting early in the project and make a point of introducing everyone involved. Or if that isn’t practical then get one or two people from each agency to meet each other, just so the foundation is there.

The other is agreeing how you will communicate day-today and making it as easy as possible. We generally set up a shared Slack channel to allow quick chat communication. This can take a bit of persuasion if a team hasn’t used Slack before but it’s a very quick learning curve and is much better for collaboration than email in our experience.

The same applies to sharing assets - create a single cloud storage location for shared project files. This could be Drive, Dropbox or whatever you’re comfortable with. It’s much easier if someone can go there directly rather than asking you for something they need.

Tips:

  • Shared Slack channel for all teams involved
  • Introductory meeting
  • Collaborative file-sharing

Clear and collaborative decisions

If a decision directly affects the work of one of your agencies then ensure they are involved in the process and get a chance to contribute. Or if you don’t want their input then at least clearly explain the rationale and why you’ve chosen what you’ve chosen. It obviously depends on the situation but in either case it’s important that people don’t feel frozen out and have the chance to flag a potential issue if they think you’ve made the wrong decision.

When decisions are made it can be really useful to document them in a way that can be easily referred to. We often create a shared knowledge base using tools like Confluence or Notion to add meeting notes, documentation and research. It’s essentially a well-structured, searchable document system that replaces the need to hunt back through emails or have information lost in inaccessible documents.

It can sometimes be helpful to bring people in to a decision who may be focused on a different area of the project but have relevant expertise. For example, if your marketing agency is pitching a campaign concept to you, your design agency may be able to give useful feedback on the visual aspects of it - Does it fit the brand? Is the execution up to scratch? Similarly, technical people from your digital product agency may be able to appraise the data approach proposed by your marketing team. This brings a level of expertise you may not have yourself as well as a degree of objectivity – hopefully they’ll tell you the hard truth.

Tips:

  • Shared knowledge base (e.g. Notion, Confluence)
  • Collaborative decisions making
  • Invite feedback from relevant experts from other agencies

Conclusion

To summarise, running any project that involves multiple teams is going to present challenges. You need to think about different approaches, team dynamics and expectations to find a balance that results in you getting the best outcome for your project. As the client everyone will ultimately look to you as the leader of the project and the person in charge of the purse strings to be clear about what you want, help to solve problems and be honest with your suppliers. It’s not an easy job and is certainly a skill in itself. In fact, there’s a whole area of management literature devoted to the idea of being an "intelligent client".

If you’re working with competent agencies then they should be able to guide you through the process having already encountered the issues clients typically have many times before. But there is always some onus on you to think carefully about how you’re going to manage your teams and to take responsibility for doing a professional job. At the end of the day that’s how you’re going to get the best outcome for your business – so you should want to do it.

And it won’t always go to plan. Pretty much every project encounters problems at some point. The important thing is to spot them early and take action. The more transparent you encourage your agencies to be the easier it is to spot problems, and the clearer you are with your decision-making the easier it is to then solve them.

Of course the goal is for it not just to go well, but really well. This happens when you create an environment that encourages chemistry, collaboration, efficiency and honesty which drives the projects towards success with everyone bought in to their part of it. It’s not easy, but follow the ideas in this article that we’ve developed over many years and hopefully you’ll get there!

Crowdform has successfully delivered many projects involving multiple agencies to launch new products and companies, build digital applications and help our clients to innovate and achieve their goals.

If you want to discuss a project with us, whether it involves multiple agencies or not, you can get in touch via hello@crowdform.co.uk.


Ewan Collinge

Ewan co-founded Crowdform in 2015 and leads product design and strategy. He wears many hats and can be contacted at ewan@crowdform.co.uk.

Ready to talk about your project?

Contact us