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How to Avoid Client / Agency Collaboration Disasters

Agencies are hubs of collaboration. Between account managers, creatives, the client, contractors and external stakeholders, there can be hundreds of eyes on a single project. This can be a great way to ensure experts in different areas can lend their expertise to a project, or that many potential ideas are listened to and implemented.

Unfortunately, people being people, a highly collaborative environment will eventually breed some issues. It’s how you handle these issues that will determine whether your agency has a successful collaborative culture.

Here are some of the most common collaboration disasters that can hit a project, and how you can solve them:

1. Silo Mentality Distorting Collaboration


Picture a farmyard with several large silos. These giant grain stores might appear to be a cohesive group - after all, they’re all stacked next to each other in a field. But they remain separate - there’s no way for any of the stores to mix between silos. There is no communication.

This is Silo mentality - when teams internal to a company are determined to remain separate. One team is over here doing something while the other is over there tackling the same problem from a different point of view. If only they would mix up the grains a bit, they could combine powers and solve the problem in half the time.

If your company has a silo mentality, this will shut down collaboration before you can achieve anything useful. So how do you break down silos?

  • Have regular sharing meetings where each department talks about the work they are doing.
  • Encourage people to “shadow” other departments to learn about what they do.
  • Get team members to teach workshops to the rest of your company.
  • Package services across teams together to begin the process of cross-departmental collaboration.

2. Client & Agency roles reversed


This is a really common situation when clients and agencies start to talk together. The client will come with the brief, and start to offer some suggestions for solutions to the brief. The agency team will cut in with a list of all the problems and issues with the client’s ideas.

This isn’t a great way to start an agency/client relationship. The client spends all their time defending their idea against the agency naysayers, and the agency staff are being confrontational, instead of creative. These roles should be reversed - with the agency coming up with the ideas, and the client trying to figure out how those ideas

So how do you reverse these roles?

  • If the client presents that idea, immediately hand that idea off to the creative team and get them to expand on it.
  • Ask the client if they have any concerns?
  • Structure initial meetings to avoid this situation. Have the agency team go away and come back to present different options.

3. The Client Doesn’t Want to Collaborate


You’ve got a great collaboration system set up, with plenty of opportunity for the client to take ownership for the direction of the creative. The only problem is … the client isn’t interested. He seems to believe his role is over as soon as he signs the first cheque. You can’t even get him to give feedback on your drafts, let alone suggest a direction for the copy or answer any of your questions.

What can you do?

  • Approach someone else in the client’s company and see if they can help.
  • Ask the client specific questions, such as “do you prefer the blue or the red background?” instead of “what is your favourite design?”
  • Understand that your client’s ambivalence probably stems from the fact that he feels he doesn’t actually understand what you’re doing or how it impacts his bottom line.
  • Decrease the number of queries you address to the client and the number of contacts he has to deal with from your company.
  • Present your client with the options and tell him which one you’d choose and why. This will usually prompt him to agree with you, meaning you’re able to reach a decision and move to the next stage of the project.

4. Overcollaborating


Just like eating too much ice cream will give you a stomach ache, there is such a thing as too much collaboration. Not every activity on a project needs to be a crowdsourced solution. Overcollaborating can stall projects or derail focus from the original brief.

Such environments typically emerge because managers are not clear what it is they want to achieve from people working together, so end up collaborating for the sake of collaborating.  The results are seldom good.

So how do you prevent overcollaboration?

  • Be clear about what you want to achieve through collaboration from the onset. What are the goals? What is the purpose of bringing different people together?
  • Limit collaboration activities to certain steps in the process.
  • Ask specific questions and force decisions to make progress.

5. Loss of Focus


Often when people get into a discussion and are sharing ideas - whether they agree or don’t agree - they can get completely sidetracked from the main focus of a collaboration - which is, in your agency’s case, the production of collateral your client needs for marketing or branding. If everyone gets caught up in wider issues or off-topic discussions, it can be easy to feel as if you’re working while not actually achieving anything.

So how do you get a collaboration back on focus?

  • Take the initiative. Someone is going to have to. It might as well be you.
  • Ask specific questions to bring the conversation back to the topic at hand. Ask, “so how can we apply this to the project?”
  • Suggest alternative ways to discuss off-topic subjects, such as opening a Google Hangout.
  • Dig deep to the heart of the problem. If discussions are stalled because of an issue, you’re going to need to dig deep to find out what the underlying problem IS. For example, often a client will get confrontational if they are worried about the project outcomes. The project won’t get back on track till that underlying issue is solved.

Collaboration is definitely an important part of the agency process, but the more room you have for collaboration, the more you invite these types of issues. Getting through tough collaboration issues is all about bringing the focus back to the project and ensuring everyone else is on the same page.

What collaboration disasters have you averted? How does collaboration work at your agency?