Navigating a Client & Agency Partnership: Tips from Deena Emara

Colby Flood
Creative Strategy

Navigating the decision to hire an agency versus building an in-house team is an important choice for any business, especially in the creative sector. Recently, I chatted with Creative Director and dabbledee founder Deena Emara about the nuances of choosing between in-house and agency creative work, the essential qualities to look for in an agency, and what constitutes a good onboarding experience. 

Drawing from her years of experience with brands like True Classic and Columbia Records, we also discussed the importance of a collaborative relationship and how to handle scope creep effectively—and I distilled it all into this blog for you! 

Why To Hire a Creative Agency

The decision to hire an agency often starts with evaluating your business's specific needs and resources. When the need for creative output is constant and requires diverse skills, forming an in-house team may not be sustainable or efficient for every company.

In these scenarios, hiring an agency becomes a more viable option. Agencies have the flexibility to scale resources up or down based on demand, which is especially useful for projects with varying workloads. On the other hand, freelancers can be a practical and cost-effective alternative to full-time hires or agency contracts for tasks that are less frequent or specialized.

Opting for freelancers is often more practical when the requirements are low and do not justify a full-time position. This approach allows businesses to maintain flexibility without the overhead of a full team or agency structure.

Another major benefit of working with an agency is that gaining some outside perspective is usually helpful. Often, business leaders and internal teams are so close to the product and branding that it’s hard for them to see new opportunities or discover innovative ideas. Agencies that work with a wide spectrum of clients usually spend their entire day thinking of new ideas, finding new ways to push the envelope, and constantly looking at emerging data and trends. It’s easier for them to be objective about what’s working, what isn’t, and what should be tested. 

What to Look for in a Creative Agency

Selecting the right agency goes beyond reviewing their portfolio or past work. Key considerations that Deena mentioned include:

  1. Team Clarity and Transparency: Understanding exactly who will be working on your account is crucial. Avoid agencies that present a vague or overly large team structure. Knowing the specific individuals involved ensures accountability and effective communication. Deena highlighted that direct contact with the creatives working on the project, rather than just project managers, is essential to avoid lag and miscommunication.
  2. Domain Expertise: Ensure that project managers have relevant expertise. Agencies should provide direct access to the actual designers or developers working on your project to prevent communication lags and misinterpretations. When project managers lack the necessary background, it can create a disconnect between the client’s vision and the final output.
  3. Avoiding Data Fishing: Be wary of agencies that present inflated performance metrics without clear explanations. Transparency in reporting and a solid understanding of how metrics are derived is essential for trust. Deena mentioned the issue of receiving data that seemed exaggerated without proper context or breakdown, which can lead to skepticism and mistrust.
  4. Intuition and Problem Understanding: Successful agencies come into the first call prepared, understanding the brand’s problems and needs without making assumptions. They should be able to discuss potential issues and solutions during the initial conversations, showing that they grasp the client's pain points and can offer strategic insights.

What Makes a Good Onboarding Experience?

A successful onboarding process balances structure with flexibility. While comprehensive audits and channel reviews are valuable, they should be customized to fit the client's existing resources and needs. Avoid a one-size-fits-all approach and instead tailor the onboarding process to the specific requirements of the business.

Key Elements of Effective Onboarding:

  1. Structured Flexibility: Agencies should start with a checklist that identifies what the client already has in place and what is needed. This approach prevents duplication of efforts and ensures that the agency's resources are used where they’re most needed. Deena emphasized the importance of understanding the client's existing strategy and resources to avoid redundant efforts.
  2. Clear Timeline and Follow-Ups: It’s important to provide a bulletproof timeline with regular follow-ups. This transparency keeps clients informed throughout the creative process, preventing surprises and allowing for timely adjustments. Regular updates and checkpoints help ensure the project stays on track and any issues are addressed promptly.
  3. Regular Check-Ins: Regular, informal check-ins between key team members ensure that everyone is on the same page and can address any issues promptly. This practice helps maintain alignment and fosters a collaborative working environment. Deena mentioned the value of having direct conversations between the lead creatives on both sides to ensure clarity and alignment.
  4. Adaptability to Client Needs: Agencies should be able to adjust their processes based on the client's specific needs. For instance, if a client already has a well-defined strategy, the agency should focus on execution rather than revisiting the strategic groundwork. This adaptability helps in creating a more efficient and productive partnership.

The Collaborative Relationship Between the Client and the Agency

Collaboration is at the heart of a successful client-agency relationship. Understanding how hands-on or hands-off the client wants to be is crucial for long-term success and sets expectations for the workflow. 

For instance, mood boards and visual examples are invaluable tools for aligning creative visions. Regular creative brainstorming sessions with key team members can foster deeper synergy and prevent misalignment.

Strategies for Effective Collaboration:

  1. Single, Well-Considered Solutions: Agencies should aim to offer a single, well-considered solution with backup plans ready if needed. Presenting too many options can lead to decision fatigue for the client. Demonstrating expertise and confidence in the proposed solution helps build trust and reduces unnecessary complexity. Deena highlighted that presenting one strong solution, with additional options in reserve, shows expertise and reduces the burden on the client.
  2. Understanding Client Preferences: Agencies should know how involved the client wants to be in the creative process. Some clients prefer a more hands-off approach, trusting the agency's expertise, while others want to be deeply involved in every step. Tailoring the collaboration style to match the client's preferences ensures a smoother working relationship.
  3. Visual Tools and Examples: Visual tools like mood boards or Pinterest boards can help align the creative direction. These tools provide a tangible reference point for discussions and ensure that both parties clearly understand the desired outcome.
  4. Regular Brainstorming Sessions: Having regular brainstorming sessions between the agency's and client's creative leads can foster innovation and ensure that the creative output aligns with the brand's vision. These sessions provide an opportunity for open dialogue and collaborative problem-solving.

Handling Scope Creep

Scope creep is a common challenge in client-agency relationships. When scope creep occurs, it often indicates a miscommunication during the onboarding process. Open, honest conversations about scope and limitations are essential to prevent misunderstandings.

Strategies for Managing Scope Creep:

  1. Clear Boundaries and Flexibility: Maintain flexibility while setting clear boundaries to ensure equitable attention to all clients. Regularly reassessing and adjusting work agreements can help manage expectations. Deena mentioned the importance of having re-grounding conversations to clarify the scope and adjust work agreements as needed.
  2. Transparent Communication: When additional requests arise, agencies should transparently explain the costs and implications. Offering alternative solutions or adjustments to the existing scope can help maintain a healthy partnership without straining resources. Deena emphasized the need for clear communication about why certain requests fall outside the agreed scope and how they can be managed.
  3. Budget and Resource Planning: Agencies should plan for a certain margin of flexibility in their budgets and resources to accommodate minor scope changes. However, it is crucial to identify and address significant scope changes early to avoid resource strain and ensure project viability.
  4. Client Education: Educating clients about the potential impacts of scope changes on the project timeline and budget can help manage expectations. Clear documentation and communication of the agreed scope from the outset can prevent misunderstandings later on.

Is Hiring a Creative Agency Right for You?

A successful client-agency partnership is built on flexibility, transparency, and a deep understanding of both perspectives. Agencies should strive to be an extension of the client's team, fostering a collaborative environment that encourages continuous iteration and improvement. 

In many cases, working with an agency is the best option for brands who want to lean on creativity, data, and innovation to help grow their business. 

Want More Strategies for Success?

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