HOWseGuest: Plays Well With Others

The Ad Agency: Your Best Frenemy

by Shannon Stull



There is a crazy myth in the advertising world that somehow ad agencies are the most creative resources a company can hire. Having worked in both agencies and in-house, I can say that this is not always the case.




I have an in-house team of extremely talented artists and writers, most of which have agency backgrounds. And, I can say that our team’s skill well didn’t just dry up because we now work for a single client.

That being said, it was no surprise that when we found out the company would be going through a re-brand, the excitement was tangible. Some of us had been waiting years for the opportunity to finally do some amazing creative work, and the idea of concepting and designing in a world free of the previous brand standards and the “but we always…” mentality was intoxicating. However, excitement was promptly snuffed out when we learned that this project would be outsourced to an ad agency.

There were many elements of this choice that confounded me, in particular. However, after I had sufficiently cursed, taken a few shots, and set a few things on fire, I took a step back and looked at the situation from the positive side.

This was a great opportunity to still be involved with a great campaign that will benefit my company. Plus, it may even add to my portfolio. Once I turned my ‘tude around, I ended up having a great relationship with our agency partner, and we produced a campaign that we are all proud of. Based on this journey, I have created a few pointers to help turn your agency partnership into a collaborative, rather than  competitive, thing of beauty.

1. If The Agency Has Not Yet Been Hired, There’s Still A Chance…

Ok, so I know that I promised to help you work with agencies. However, I am also an advocate of flaunting your in-house talent first.

Have you been noodling on some awesome design treatments, catchy headlines, or “big” ideas that you have not yet shared with your company leadership? If so, this might be the perfect opportunity for a formal pitch.  Gather the big wigs and some peers as back-up and sell the hell out of your ground-breaking, soon to be award-winning campaign. Treat this presentation as though you have not yet been hired, are bringing a fresh perspective, and are fighting for the business. If you can give compelling, exciting ideas that your company has not seen before, you may be able to earn the project back.

After all of this work, your company still may choose an agency. If this happens, at least you tried. Store your ideas away as spec ads for your book, and move on. Chances are, the extra effort and passion in your work will be recognized and respected.

2. Take Lead On The Process

If it’s looking like outsourcing is the way you are definitely going, offer to research ad agencies and make suggestions as to possible choices early on. Once some are selected as finalists, make sure to be present for all pitch meetings, and establish yourself as one of the final stakeholders in the selection process.

3. Choose And Agency That Is Comfortable With An Open Relationship

Choosing an agency is like choosing who you are going to be dating for the next year. This is a big commitment, so you better find someone who is smart, cool, and who you want to be around all the time.

Different agencies will approach a relationship with an in-house team in different ways. Some agencies will push back, saying that they “don’t want outside influence.”  This is understandable. However, if you have a strong in-house team, I strongly suggest you stay away from that agency, and instead choose one that sees you as a partner. Set that expectation in the beginning of the agency hiring process, and get a commitment from them before you sign any papers.

4. Be an Asset, Not a Roadblock

Your responsibility will not be to art/creative direct the outside agency, but instead to collaborate with them. Send them some brain dumps, have them bounce ideas off of you before they present to your department. Be present at photo shoots, video shoots, and VO recordings.

You are the expert in your company. Let the agency use you as a resource, and help them develop a kick-ass project. After all, this work will affect every project you touch for a very long time.

5. A Good Campaign is a Victory for the Both of You

After months of brainstorming, development, presentations and approvals, you should now have a brand spanking new campaign. You may not have been the brain behind the “big idea” for it, or been the hand that designed it, but you were the person who guided it along the way. You educated your agency partners about your brand and your culture. You inspired them to find solutions to the problems your brand was facing, and you ultimately helped give them the green light in the final direction. Enjoy this new look/feel and messaging. Have fun with it! Both you and your agency partners have just created something to be proud of.

Be the Internal Face Behind the Brand
Once the fruits of your and your agency’s labor are ready for the big reveal, be the face behind your internal marketing  team’s “brand.” Introduce the new campaign elements yourself, explain their rationale, and generally hype up your team’s involvement in the creative process. This is a good way to build credibility within your organization, and get buy-in before the new creative hits the market. Remember, just because you used an outside agency does not mean that you were not involved with the final, glorious product. Accept credit where credit is due.

Hopefully my wordy input has helped spin your client/agency partnership into something positive for you. This is an opportunity – take advantage of it. Good luck!

About the Author: Shannon Stull is the Creative Director for Rasmussen College. In her role, she oversees video and creative collateral for degree programs including: business degrees, multimedia degrees, and more. She has worked in the field of advertising and marketing for more than seven years, with experience on both agency and in-house creative teams. Shannon also has a Bachelor’s degree in Advertising with a concentration in Art Direction from the University of Texas – Austin. When she’s not working, she is known as the super tall redhead on the Orlando arts scene.


5 thoughts on “HOWseGuest: Plays Well With Others

  1. Dave

    I find that agencies are great to work with in the initial honeymoon phase, but the responsiveness seems to dry up a bit after they have a commitment on upcoming projects. Do you have any tips for keeping them engaged and responsive?

    1. Shannon Stull

      My advice would be to be persistent. Call and email until you get a hold of them, and then lay out your expectations for communication. A good way to do this is to create a standing weekly meeting to catch up. Come to the meeting with an agenda so you can maximize your time. Additionally, ask specifically who your contact should be, and maintain regular communication with them as well.

      Lastly, it also helps build relationships when you can get some face time. If you have the opportunity, ask your contact to join you for lunch some day and get to know them a bit. It’s much easier to ignore an email from a faceless person on the internet, versus “that cool guy Dave”. 🙂

  2. Kelly

    Our leadership doesn’t allow us to work with the agency. Instead of a collaborative partnership, I’m stuck feeling like I’m getting pushed out of a job. Projects and responsibilities are assigned to me, only for me to find the same projects approved and final in my inbox before I’m even given any specs or copy. I don’t even get a chance. Any tips on how to handle a secretive leadership?

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