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Six Best Practices for Creating Collaborative Agency Partnerships

Wendy Blackburn

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Pharma product managers are constantly juggling — juggling internal expectations, juggling brand strategies and tactics, juggling priorities and deadlines. But some days, juggling all of a brand’s agency partners can feel like the most difficult task of all.

Recently, a client asked our opinion on the best formula for getting agencies to work well together. How can brand teams set up efficient, collaborative relationships among agency partners? It’s an important question (I was glad they asked) and one we’ve thought about a lot here at Intouch. Because if clients can get the best out of all of their agencies, well — to paraphrase Aristotle — certainly the whole of those efforts will be greater than the sum of their parts.

Whether Intouch Solutions is playing a leadership role or one of equal agency partnership, there are a number of best practices we’ve learned help set up all of the agency partners, and therefore the brand, for success:

  • Set the tone. It’s critical that the client set a collaborative tone upfront. When clients clearly communicate the expectation that their agencies will work together, agencies are able to focus on the things that are best for the brand instead of expending energy on counterproductive, competitive issues.
  • Get everyone together. Literally. In person. In the most successful agency working relationships we’ve seen, clients make a point to host productive agency summits. For example, getting everyone together during annual planning, during a critical period before launch, or when new agencies come on board.
  • Clearly define roles. Agency relationships go the most smoothly when roles are clearly defined in writing. This helps alleviate the unfortunate tug-of-war that can happen over projects that have crossover. (Who’s doing email — the direct marketing agency or the digital agency? Whose responsibility is social media — AOR, PR or digital?) This openness helps foster ideas across the board from everyone, because if everyone knows where they stand, they’ll worry less about their best ideas going to other agencies. Some clients have even stated the expectation that agencies bring their best ideas no matter what their designated channel or role and the agency with that assigned role would be the one to implement it. Period.
  • Let technology be your friend. Especially when it comes to global teams, cross-agency communication and collaboration are critical to ensure affiliates are aligned and messaging is represented consistently and appropriately across U.S. and global partners. One means to achieve this is to digitize and centralize marketing and educational materials through one location: a digital library. By establishing a global digital library, global leads will gain visibility into digital activity and available assets, while enforcing a consistent use of approved global materials.
  • Karaoke, anyone? A little designated time to cut loose can go a long way. At the outset, in addition to formal brand-related agency summits, schedule an interactive social event (e.g., bowling, karaoke, etc.) so the teams can get to know each other outside of a business setting. This helps put faces to names and build team camaraderie, trust and comfort.

See more great tips from Rohit Bhargava in his post, “7 Ways to Get Marketing Agencies to Work Together in a Mega-Agency World.” And speaking of mega-agencies, I would add to the above list the following point:

  • Consider independents in your agency mix. Many of us in the agency world (myself included) have worked for both independent and holding company agencies, and the contrasting mindsets can be stark. Consider how each type of agency is incentivized and rewarded. Is it by partnering for long-term relationships and getting results (independent), or is it by “selling in” more work to meet quarterly forecasts and earnings (holding companies)? In my experience, independent agencies have client service and collaboration — not sales — at the core of their relationship strategies. And while hundreds of agencies may be under the same umbrella holding company, that does not mean they play well in the sandbox together. (In fact, often it’s quite the opposite.)

    When choosing agency partners, consider independents. One top-10 pharma prospect told us recently they were only considering independent agencies for a pitch because they just weren’t getting the best ideas, best people or best collaboration from their holding company partner.

What tips and tricks have you learned — either from the client side or agency side — to create successful working relationships across agencies? Creating a collaborative agency situation not only helps ensure that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” for your brand; it also sets up situations where everyone — the client, the brand, partner agencies and even patients — is able to succeed.

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