The Marketing Management Panic Attack: Optimize Your Ad Agency Relationship to Get Results Faster

So, it’s already been 90 days, and what have you done?

Brand and marketing managers are under more pressure than ever to demonstrate progress and show results. This can be particularly challenging for someone new to their role or just getting started with a new company. Not only do you have to get a lay of the land and navigate the politics of a new company culture, but you also have to absorb all kinds of legacy inputs, scrutinize reports and data, evaluate current partners and marketing plans already in progress, and do it all under a microscope with a blazing hot beam of light shining on your every decision.

But that’s not the worst of it.

You’re also forced to operate in a fast-moving marketing environment fueled by new channels, trends and technologies—many of which present themselves as the next greatest thing (before inevitably yielding to the next greatest thing 18 months later). Today it might be AI-enhanced digital display advertising. Tomorrow, who knows?

Some days it feels like you’re just treading water, and you’ve lost sight of land. This is where skill and experience managing an agency partner can be invaluable. To that end, here are a few ways you can accelerate success and demonstrate results by working with an agency partner.

1. Manage the data dump.

Every agency will tell you “Send us what you’ve got; we want it all.” That sure sounds helpful, but then you’re relying on someone else, who’s less familiar with your brand and less invested in your success, to comb through it all for the few useful bits and pieces that will actually be helpful. There are only so many hours in the day, and the more hours your agency spends sifting and sorting gigabytes of outdated sales materials, product briefs and irrelevant communications, the less time they’ll spend strategically applying insights and generating new thinking.

A better idea is to think critically before dragging all those folders over to the agency-supplied Dropbox link. What do they REALLY need? How much of this will be useful? If I spend an hour or two curating these onboarding resources, how much time will I be saving the people on the other side who have to go through them all without context? And if you’re not sure, separate the mission-critical documents from the “additional materials” so the agency team knows where to start.

If you want to accelerate every part of the process, start with a thoughtful assessment of what your agency really, truly needs to produce good thinking and even better work. In some cases, it may mean synthesizing it all yourself and providing background and insights in an all-new onboarding deck.

Time is money, yes—but it’s also time. And if you want to jump start that next initiative, try getting your partner halfway there. A few days in the weeds now might save you a few weeks down the road.

2. Set realistic deadlines.

You’re on the hook for results, so it’s natural you’re going to want to show progress sooner than later. The problem is when an eagerness to demonstrate progress becomes an impediment to doing good work.

Instead of dictating arbitrary deadlines to keep your agency partner honest, find an honest partner willing to tell you how long it will take to produce high quality work. Work with them. Compromise on timing. Collaborate more regularly to ensure they’re on strategy. And if you need to show the higher-ups that you’re capable, or that your agency selection was a good one, consider engaging your agency on a small project first to chalk up an easy win.

At Motion, we like to ask our clients what we can do for them on a personal level to help them demonstrate success. Because to help our clients’ companies grow, we need to empower our client contacts charged with doing so. The truth is, you may need to cultivate a little trust internally before making big moves.

A good partner will be sensitive to this and offer to help get your efforts noticed. Momentum from a quick victory can propel you forward with the confidence to take on much larger initiatives and may even buy you enough internal goodwill to fight for the time your agency needs to do their best work on your behalf.

Deadlines are important, but demanding your agency jump through flaming hoops backward isn’t how you maximize your investment in any external partner. It’s actually the easiest way to ensure mediocre, substandard work and, oftentimes, costly mistakes. If your deadline has less wiggle room than Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras, consider a phased approach whereby you direct your agency to focus on nailing the most critical elements first instead of delivering everything at once.

A great agency partner is always willing to bend over backwards to make magic happen, but they need the aid of a good spotter so that they don’t collapse under the weight of unrealistic expectations. 

3. Communicate feedback clearly.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re producing an ad campaign, directing a new website build or leading a brand strategy initiative, the most important thing is getting it right. Speed to market matters, of course, but if you rush poorly conceived, poorly executed work to market, the next big initiative you undertake will be updating your LinkedIn profile to “open for work.” Reasonable deadlines are a big help here, obviously, but so is clear, direct and timely feedback.

Let’s start with “clear and direct.” Wishy-washy, noncommittal feedback delivered in mitigated phrases like “we may want to explore alternatives,” or “I wonder if this is the best way forward,” will confuse your agency partner because they hint at dissatisfaction without clearly explaining why.

If something isn’t meeting your expectations, lean on the brief to offer some concrete feedback. “This ad may be funny, but strategically it’s missing the mark because it’s not speaking to the right audience.” “The aesthetics of your web design options are nice, however when I compare these looks to the sites of our competitors there is nothing that differentiates us visually, which is one of the strategic goals of the assignment.” Direct. Clear. Honest.

Being transparent will help your partner focus on resolving the issue instead of spinning their wheels guessing what it is you don’t like. If you are in a crunch for time, it may even help to be prescriptive with your feedback. Just keep in mind that the people doing the work do it for a living, so they are likely better able to solve for the challenges you’re having than you are.

“Make the logo bigger” is a classic example of a client attempting to prescribe a solution to a problem, the problem being, “I feel our branding is too subtle and I’d like for our brand name to jump off the page/screen.” This isn’t always best accomplished by making a logo bigger. Sometimes minimizing the visual noise in a layout or using negative space to draw the eye to the logo can accomplish the same thing while preserving the integrity of an ad’s thoughtful design.

The best strategy for providing feedback is to clearly articulate the problem and leave the problem-solving to those who do it all day every day. Suggestions are always welcome, of course, but over-directing your agency partner will turn them into mindless order-takers. And if that’s what you’re looking for, hire a couple of interns.

4. Trust your partner.

This one seems obvious, and quite obviously it’s a lot easier to do if you have a partner you can trust. But you won’t know whether they can actually be trusted until they’ve proven it. If they’re new (or new to you) give them something small but meaningful, a reasonable amount of time, clear direction and a no-miss deadline to work with. See how they handle it.

Are they communicating progress or remaining radio silent? Are they off and running on their own or requiring time-consuming follow-ups and clarification calls? Does their schedule give you enough time to make meaningful changes? Are they meeting (or beating!) their deadlines or making you sweat it? How do they handle changes in direction or feedback, with enthusiasm and a smile or blank, passive-aggressive stares?

There will always be hiccups and learning curves when collaborating with someone new. The most important thing is that your agency partner hears you, learns as they go, and improves over time. This is how you will come to trust them and ultimately sleep better knowing your projects are in capable hands. 

So, it’s been 90 days, and what HAVE you done?

In addition to managing the data dump, setting realistic deadlines, communicating feedback clearly and trusting your partner, what more can you do to effectively direct your agency partner?

For starters, literally, start with the end in mind. Share your goals at the very beginning. What does success look like to you? What kind of progress do you need to make? What would make you look like an absolutely rock star? A good agency partner armed with tangible (or hypothetical or even anecdotal) pre-kick KPIs will do everything in their power to deliver.

Because every ad agency exec worth their performance bonus knows that great work is typically rewarded by more of it.

So don’t hold back. Tell us what it’s going to take. Let us get to work. And instead of a marketing panic attack, rest easy knowing your uber-capable agency partner has totally got your back.