By: Max Schaefer
MBA Candidate at Booth School of Business, University of Chicago
Digital projects succeed to the level that client teams and their agency counterparts are able to integrate and work together as a team. That may appear to be a bold statement, but the truth is, it’s not a novel idea. In the midst of design deadlines, rigorous development schedules, and a flurry of other activity, however, the working dynamics of the client-agency partnership often gets overlooked.
How can clients and agencies keep team integration top-of-mind as they navigate oftentimes complex project requirements and looming deadlines? Who is ultimately responsible for the success of the teams’ integration? What’s the best way to approach this? It starts with intentionally choosing a team model and keeping a relentless focus on it, which first and foremost requires buy-in from everyone involved on both the client and agency side.
Choosing a Team Model
Agencies often talk about agile versus waterfall project management methodologies as well as development paradigms, but more basic working structures and team dynamics are often taken for granted. There are many different working models that clients and agencies can apply; the specific approach ultimately comes down to a given project and its unique needs which often vary from project to project.
At the core, there is likely one of two very high-level scenarios that occurs internally in a given organization. We illustrate the two scenarios using Company A and Company B as examples and show how a digital agency partner fits into the picture in each case:
- Company A has marketing stakeholders, but doesn’t have an in-house digital team.
- Company B has marketing stakeholders, digital subject matter experts, and mature development practices.
Which camp an organization falls into, along with budget realities, will often determine the most efficient and effective team model. Let’s take a deeper dive into why this is so, and the implications it has on client-agency collaboration.
Option 1: Hire a Digital Agency to Spearhead Efforts and Implement a Solution
Let’s say that Company A has existed for dozens of years, but for a number of reasons has never built out an in-house digital team. That’s okay – as it’s largely why agencies exist, to help clients with the latest digital strategies and implementations. While Company A may have a number of marketing experts, project managers, and decision makers, they simply do not have the personnel needed to execute on all of their digital initiatives. What this likely means is that a digital agency is going to need to own far more of the end-to-end process, even if there is overlap and some duplicate resourcing between Company A and the agency. Since the agency needs to deploy a variety of resources to ensure the success of the work for which they are ultimately responsible, it is imperatvie that they are empowered to run the project in the way they see fit, with buy-in and approval from client-side stakeholders. If this is a client’s working model, then holistic integration isn’t as important – the client organization is freed up to spend their valuable time and energy focused on other pressing matters.
Option 2: Augment the In-House Team with a Digital Agency Team
Let’s say that Company B invested in building out their digital practice (strategy, design, user experience, and development) a long time ago and has a fairly mature team and process. Company B, historically, has been able to handle most any digital initiative they have chosen to pursue. But, for a variety of reasons (limited resources at the moment, new or unfamiliar technologies, or the need for a fresh perspective), they decide to bring on a digital agency team to augment theirs. This scenario can be more challenging to run, but the payoff can be significant.
Choosing the right team model requires identifying which camp a client falls into and understanding what the needs are. Although identifying the appropriate model is the easiest part in the process, it is often unintentionally overlooked, which results in mismatched expectations downstream .
Integrating and Promoting a Successful Team Dynamic
Let’s say a client has decided on a model they deem best for their current project. For the purposes of this post, let’s say it’s similar to the scenario we described for Company B earlier: end-to-end integrated teams. The next step is to agree on rules of engagement and distribution of responsibilities. Equally important is to purposefully build in ample time to tend to the combined team’s needs.
Let’s look at some considerations that will help define the rules of engagement upfront:
- Which stakeholders from the integrated team will be the ultimate owner of all meetings, scheduling, status reports, etc.? (Generally, this tends to be stakeholders on the agency side.)
- Which approvals are needed from the client and which ones from the agency on deliverables and assets? How will adequate time be built into the schedule to garner these approvals?
- Is one team more adept at front end development than the other? Does it make sense to let this team own that portion of the project completely? How can each team use their strengths to augment and bolster the other team’s potential gaps?
- Which types of development processes will be adhered to on each side?
- What hurdles exist at the outset of the project? What is a constructive way to transparently discuss these early on?
- If the agency is creating the designs for this particular project, what will the design team on the client side be responsible for, if anything?
- Do the project managers from both sides feel comfortable with the amount and types of meetings? Is there a particular management methodology which will be employed?
There are many questions that can and should be answered at the very beginning of a project when two teams plan on working together; these are just examples, and ultimately the specific questions will vary from project to project. Regardless, it’s a good idea to make a checklist to ensure that important questions are addressed by both client and agency early on.
The Client-Agency Partnership in Practice
Flexibility and trust in a partnership stems from clear communication, mutually-understood expectations, and a willingness to come to the table continuously to sort things out. Integrating teams of highly-skilled workers can often be challenging and rewarding. When projects increase in complexity, it’s easy to forget these simple ideas that apply to collaboration across many different industries and business models. Ironically, being able to step out of the weeds and focus on the more fundamental aspects of collaboration is what produces successful outcomes on projects where two major teams have been combined.