A point of view from Bill Faust, Partner and Chief Strategy Officer

Working Well Together

Best practices for collaboration between in-house creative teams and outside agencies

Stereotypically, the relationship between an in-house creative team and its outside agency is characterized by mistrust, competition, and anxiety. Why is that? We don’t doubt that many respectful and productive relationships exist, but they aren’t talked about much. Instead, we hear about epic battles for territory and creative control between internal groups and outside firms in just about every industry.

How can we foster greater collaboration? When you look at these relationships carefully, it’s easy to see why they’re often predisposed to conflict. But we’ve identified a few critical factors that, considered in advance, can lay the groundwork for more successful interaction.

  1. Motivation

    Internal and external creative groups are often driven by different forces. An internal team may take great pride in maintaining consistency across its product portfolio or brand image, while an outside agency tends to want to innovate or push the envelope. So it’s important to determine motives from the get-go: ask “why are we doing this?” and agree on an answer.

  2. Culture and Values

    In-house teams are generally part of a larger corporate entity, and as such, they often take on the values of their surroundings. Outside agencies—which tend to be smaller and more entrepreneurial—maintain distinctive cultures that are usually much more casual. When the cultures vary widely, it makes sense to draw on the cultural assets of both organizations. The result can be greater than the two individual parts. 

  3. Goals and Objectives

    Why do corporations or large institutions hire outside agencies when they already have internal staff? Capacity issues? Fresh perspective? Speed? Specific expertise? It can be any or all of the above. But it isn’t hard to see how the in-house group might take offense or feel less than enthusiastic. And if the situation is handled poorly, it can mean a serious breakdown in trust. Communication is key here: reaffirm the group’s strengths, point out common goals, and position the agency as an extension of their team.

  4. Skills and Talent

    Internal creative teams and external agencies don’t always attract the same kind of talent. For example, you might find stronger creative managers within large corporations because they’re attracted to the structure and support that those settings offer. Conversely, a smaller agency, with a more stimulating environment and more varied assignments, might draw more conceptual designers. Once you recognize this, you can play to each individual’s inherent strengths when you define roles and responsibilities. 

  5. Fear

    It’s natural for in-house teams to have certain fears and anxieties about working with outside agencies. Will they lose creative control? Will they still have a voice? Will they be replaced? Manage these concerns by practicing transparency. Professional collaboration requires a true partnership that’s grounded in trust and mutual respect. So be completely open about the nature of the collaboration. Not only will you ease your team’s mind; you’ll also create a safe environment—which is where great work happens.