Cultivating productive agency relationships: Justine Mikulis, Tank Design


Tank Design
Boston / San Francisco, United States
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Justine Mikulis
Director of Client Services Tank

Marketer/agency relationships come in many forms today—from traditional AOR models, to working with in-house teams, and even working with multiple teams within one client organization. Whatever the arrangement, however, the same rules apply to building and maintaining a productive and healthy relationship.

These “rules of engagement” are basic, and I’m surprised by how often they are not discussed by marketers and their agency teams. At Tank, an independent design firm specializing in brand and experience design, we have different types of relationships, projects with varying scope, and a wide range of clients from FedEx to Harvard University. Regardless of the client or the project, I have found that if these simple rules are not embraced, there will inevitably be bumps in the road. 

Before starting any relationship with a creative agency, marketers should level-set on both expectations and process. Here are five places where early consensus can save a great deal of later stress:

1. Find shared language: Spend a little time on definitions before you get started. There may be in-house terms or design jargon that may not make sense to everyone. 

What’s a wireframe again? Who gets the brand book? This exercise may seem too basic, but it pays off down the road. 

2. Set roles and responsibilities: Lines of responsibility between clients and agencies have a tendency to blur as a project moves along. Introduce your whole team and their roles to the agency early and meet everyone on their side. Knowing who does what is the first step to making sure it gets done. This is also the time to be clear on who needs to sign off at which steps. I can’t tell you how often we’ve gotten well into a project and someone says, “Okay, let me pass this by management.” They’ve already made 18 different decisions and none of us can afford to go back and do it again if management disagrees. 

3. Timeline and deliverables: Start by naming each deliverable—whether they are wireframes, a mock-up, or a final product—so that you are always talking about the same thing. Then set a timeline for the agency to deliver each. Remember, though, you are part of that timeline. Mockups can’t progress to a final product without your sign-off. Think about who needs to review at each phase and set reasonable turn-around times. When projects run off schedule, waiting for feedback is often the culprit. 

4. Modes of communication: It is no fun to realize that a client doesn’t read email months into sending weekly project recaps. Set the format and cadence of communication up front. Some clients will tell me they only read emails marked urgent. Some want everything consolidated into one weekly rundown. Others admit their in-box is constantly overflowing and that if I need a response, I should really call. Agencies will do what you want, you just need the self-awareness to know what that is. 

5. Consolidated feedback: We know there are a lot of people on the client side who need to provide feedback and that not all of them will agree on what they like, hate, or want. But your agency won’t know how to respond to conflicting suggestions. Try to sort that out on your end and provide consolidated feedback. Tell your agency what you think and explain why. Then let the agency explore and find solutions (that’s why you hired them). If you do have conflict or a lack of consensus internally, take the sticking points back to the agency. They can always help you figure out which direction to go.

These rules may seem like table stakes at this point, but we’ve had to train ourselves over the years to make sure we put all of these guardrails in place on every project because we’ve learned what can happen when we don’t. Sure, the work may still be great, but we all know the difference between an enjoyable project and one that really feels like work. And,the very best results are achieved when everyone understands each other, collaborates and works together.