Why work for clients when you can work with them?

The bad old days of client vs agency battles are behind us. Today’s multi-disciplinary projects demand much closer working relationships. But to achieve this level of collaboration also requires both parties to adjust their approach.
Gemma Ballinger
Gemma Ballinger
Managing Director / Partner

The design agency model is changing to adapt to a new world. Pressure is increasing on clients’ capex and marketing budgets, which are often spread across dozens of channels. The mantra for today is ‘do more with less’.

Achieving more with less money is a huge challenge, but there are benefits. It forces everyone to look at how they work, and where they can improve.

One way it’s helping is that smarter agencies are collaborating far more with their clients. Neither party can claim to understand everything, so we need to be open about what we know, what we don’t, and who’s best placed to fill the gaps. At Output, we’ve learned from working closely with CALM, the BBC and Auto Trader that creative teams can be quicker and more effective when they spend time embedded with the client team. It’s been so useful, we’re even finding ways to work like this on smaller projects. For us, collaboration is about creating a single harmonious team, with shared processes and a jointly-owned outcome.

The best outcomes always come from an equal, balanced relationship, and willingness to work together and share projects.”
Respectful and balanced

This is how it should be. The best outcomes always come from an equal, balanced relationship, and willingness to work together and share projects. I’ve never understood why some agencies seem to enjoy fighting with clients, like children bickering about their parents or teachers. Design is not about trying to force through your brilliant ideas at the expense of the brief. For us, it’s about understanding why a brand needs to adapt and providing the tools to make it thrive.

If your default approach is to be understanding and helpful, then your argument carries weight when you do need to dig in on something. There’s a sense that you’re only doing it because you want to deliver the best piece of work – not for your agency portfolio, but to really solve the business challenge, however pragmatic that may be.

This requires balance and understanding of each other’s viewpoint. A relationship built on trust is so much more fruitful for both the client and agency. For agency teams, that means being confident enough to integrate and share your processes, and adaptable enough to adopt new ones. It means opening your studio up to shared working, but not being tied to working there. And it means giving up some of the ‘ownership’ you may feel your work deserves, sharing the learning and the credit.

Auto Trader collaborative workshop
Benefits of open working

Collaborative working can help at any stage of a project. We’ve all seen the benefits of open workshop sessions, but they can also help internal design teams think in new ways at a challenging stage, later in a project. And it’s invaluable when working on a particularly technical piece, finessing details alongside developers or broadcast teams.

For this to work, clients must adapt too. It may mean a different approach to briefing, often starting conversations before the brief is fully formed. Being visible about upcoming project roadmaps, and more open about budgets. This is a big barrier – as a client you might be nervous about revealing how much you can commit, or afraid the agency will see the budget as theirs to burn.

But it’s crucial, because it helps us to plan ahead and commit resource to projects much further out, which means we can then be more adaptable and offer better rates based on guaranteed work. It may also mean pitching less work out, and instead committing to working as a ‘trinity’ between the marketer, in-house team and agency, building a more trusting relationship.

So, why bother? The benefits of collaboration are huge. Projects are more effective, because knowledge and understanding is shared and retained in the business. They’re delivered quicker and on budget, because less time is spent on communication trails. It’s a more rewarding experience for everyone, and the client team ends up with more understanding and ownership of the work.

The old hierarchies are breaking down, and the challenges are too big to tackle alone. Agencies and clients – dive in and get working together. Can you afford not to?

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