Collaboration between digital agencies has the potential to alleviate many issues shops face. But better days won’t come without a lot of thought, discussion and preparation. So what are the secrets to making collaboration work? Relax, we’ll get to that. But first, let’s take a look at a few of the benefits a healthy collaboration offers.

Benefits of Agency Collaboration

  • Forecasting Safety Net. Figuring out the work that’s coming with a high degree of accuracy seems to be the most difficult aspect of running a digital agency. But if you have trusted shops you can lean on when either feast or famine strikes, the risks are lessened. From my own conversations, I know of at least three shops in the Bureau community that avoided layoffs last year because they were able to offer their team’s talents to shops that were overloaded. And those overloaded shops were able to meet commitments without turning down additional work that they wanted to bring in.

  • Additional Service Offerings. Part of the difficulty we face in forecasting is the ever-changing nature of the tools, technologies and the sheer number of options in how we create what we sell. But when we are aligned with other successful shops that offer these services we can combine forces to leverage their capabilities and help them benefit from ours.

  • Competitive Advantage. Once you build a strong collaboration network, your access to additional skills, resources and knowledge is always growing. This means you can say yes with confidence when others have to say no.

  • Access to New Markets. Through collaboration, we find ourselves working in new markets, verticals and geographic areas that could have taken a long time and a lot of money to reach.

 
 

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Making Collaboration Work

So if collaboration is all the rage, why aren’t more digital agencies doing it? It could be they don’t know other quality shops. Or maybe they had a bad experience. When we’re talking about putting your reputation, culture and cash on the line, one bad experience may be all it takes to send you packing. Or maybe you never tried because you’re risk averse. After all, there is a lot that can go wrong. Whether you’ve tried before or you’ve never taken the plunge, these best practices shared by shops in The Bureau community might just make you a believer.

1. Mutual Respect

No matter how attractive the project, budget or overall opportunity seems, your team has to appreciate the work and the culture of the potential partner. If there is nothing to learn from working together, then the relationship will quickly fall into a battle of who knows best. The mentality becomes, “let’s just get through this” and previously positive relationships can be damaged. But when there is mutual respect, everything comes from a place of “how would you handle this?” with a sincere desire to understand the other shop’s approach. This creates a sense of expanded experience and opportunity not only to create great work but improve as a company.

2. Opposites Attract

It’s not enough to want to work together. You need to be compatible. And one of the key attributes for successful collaboration is not to have overlapping skill sets. So look for shops with core services you don’t offer like branding, marketing, visual design, UX, research, eCommerce or development. This only makes sense because you’re trying to find a partner where you can both add new capabilities. It’s unlikely you’ll find an agency that doesn’t have some overlap—just try and make it minimal.

3. Takes One To Know One

While you don’t want your skill sets overlapping, it’s important that your core values do. Otherwise there’s a good chance the collaboration will cause tensions with your team. No collaboration is worth eroding your culture. But when you have similar beliefs in what truly matters, that commonality eliminates a lot of the fear of working together. And it helps to have similar operational philosophies as well. For instance, if one team is billing T&M weekly and the other billing value on milestones, it can cause some serious issues when a client change gets requested.

4. Optimistically Realistic

Nothing is perfect. But things can always be better. Knowing that everyone expects that something unexpected will happen allows you to have a plan for how you’ll collectively deal with it. And keeping this information out in the open avoids the sense of doom and gloom or the disgruntled back channels playing the blame game.

5. Kill The Ambiguity

Get together for a cross-company discovery workshop on what the project is, how you’re going to work together, roles and responsibilities and why it all makes sense. Discuss all the things that cause that uneasy feeling in both teams. Who will own the client relationship? Who will be managing the project? What tools and technologies will be used? Which company’s systems will be used? Your Basecamp or mine? Write it down and make sure everyone involved in the project has a chance to review it and raise any concerns or alternative approaches. Not only will this give peace of mind to the teams, but it will lead to a written agreement that will identify who, what, when, where and why.

6. Effective Communication

If you look at the cause of most problems in service businesses, it almost always boils down to bad communication. Now amplify that with two service companies and it could get bad fast. That’s why consistent, well-delivered and to-the-point communications are critical for success.

So make sure to create a communication plan that everyone signs off on. It should cover the proper channels for different types of messages (i.e., approvals versus FYIs), who is responsible for sending them as well as a reasonable expectation time for a response. And while urgency is always subjective, the tension created waiting on a response is real and can quickly cause a lack of trust.

Also make it the norm to ask for feedback on how things are working, specifically around handoffs. If it’s going across teams, it really matters to get that input and understand what can improve the collaboration. And that visible desire will build trust and improve communication.

7. Avoid Duplication

A key to effective collaboration is acting as one team even though you are two companies. So don’t expect the approach and process for a collaboration to be an easy fit in your current process, tools or systems. And it won’t be a match for your collaboration partner either. Identify the best approach for the project and the client.

If you try to run your usual process in the background, it will create confusion and the project won’t be profitable. The most common form of this is trying to have duplicate project management. This can lead to us-vs.-them finger-pointing and a lack of ownership of the project. This doesn’t mean that both teams don’t have a say in how things go—if anything the opposite. Commitments and re-negotiating as things change are more critical than ever. And communicating what’s agreed to and who’s responsible is as important as ever.

8. Minimizing Ego But Not Insights

With the best of intentions, teams collaborating may not want to rock the boat. A great idea may get filed under “they probably know better.” And this can accelerate a Groupthink mentality where everyone just tries to get to a suitable solution to keep things moving. If your team loves innovating and solving problems, this can kill the enthusiasm for the project and hurt the final product. Instead, share ideas and insights in a “what’s best for the project” packaging. Invite positive friction if there are two options for a feature that have different benefits. Make sure and have a defined approval process to keep things moving, but don’t shut down new ideas.

The Ultimate Goal: Psychological Safety

All of these recommendations lead to one ultimate goal for truly great collaboration: psychological safety. By following what’s laid out above, you’ll create an environment where everyone feels comfortable by creating a sense of low personal and team risk. Everyone will be treated with respect and feel they have a voice. There will be guidance for what to do when different issues arise and a plan for resolution. Conflict will be treated as a project-centric issue versus a team-centric one. Communication will be clear and effective. Blame gets replaced with a sense of opportunity and curiosity. And everyone ends up with a mindset of wanting the collaboration to work, because it provides an energy and opportunity to grow.

So…are you ready to consider collaborating? Let us know what may be holding you back or other challenges or opportunities you see to combining forces with other great digital agencies.

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