The Intricacies of a Successful Sandbox
If you're the agency
Yes, you are correct that you are being asked to sit at a table with another agency and share ideas, collaborate, brainstorm together and much, much more. Then you go back to your office and finish writing a response to an request for proposal for another organization that has you competing against that same agency for business. It's awkward. It's uncomfortable. But in the end, it is the dynamic we are dealing with these days.
- You will lose if you hold back in front of the client. If you hold your cards too close to the vest, if you aren't truly participating when other agencies are at the table, maybe you will save some secret idea you think is really important. But you will lose credit with the client.
- Take the high road. In fact, open the road up a bit. Be the first to throw out an idea so the other partners around the table can feel comfortable.
- In my opinion, there are very few secrets in our industry. Sure, maybe the first organization to produce the "match challenge" or the "mini-greeting card" or the "supporter card" had a six-month jump on everyone else. But let's face it, everyone latches on pretty quickly to winning strategies. Don't save your best ideas for private discussions. Perhaps they can be even better when bantered about the table by other marketers and fundraisers.
- Hold your client accountable for managing all of you. This is very important, and I put it on the list for the nonprofits below. Unless the client has asked you to be the lead agency and coordinate all the agencies, do not take on that role. The other agencies will be ticked off, and you will come across as trying to get the upper hand on things. This is hard for agencies that are used to being the "agency of record," but it is critical. The client must be accountable for the agency model it has chosen.
- If there are multiple agencies at a meeting, get it into your head that it is a joint meeting. Unless you are going to put everyone's logo on the agenda, don't slap yours on it. Build the agenda together, or have the client make the decision on the final agenda. Meetings are not a time for showboating or making other agencies look less than you. In fact, I absolutely guarantee that turnabout will be fair play at the next meeting.
- The issue of sharing results is always a challenge. I have specific thoughts on this, but the best approach is not always the easiest. Why? I think agencies sometimes race to the meeting at the same time they are editing the final deck to present. I say this from personal experience. The fastest way to create an awkward moment in a meeting is to present results on a program that involves multiple agencies with someone seeing them for the first time in front of the client. If you're working with another agency, think of it as an extension of your own staff team. Would an analyst show results to a client without allowing his/her own strategy person to weigh in first? Unless the meeting is a workshop meeting the client has asked for, the "team" should work together on the presentation and prep for the meeting. Time is the worst enemy on this one. But it will certainly prevent awkward moments and ill feelings when someone is put on the defensive to explain something he/she has not had a chance for which to prepare.
- Don't be a backdoor talker. Don't help your client manage an agency, measure its success or weigh in on its services unless you have been hired to be the lead agency. For every error that one agency has, trust me, you have one too. For every deadline missed, later on you'll miss one too.
- Recognize that some agencies are at the table because they may be experts in a very specific area of fundraising and marketing. This is not a slam at your own agency for not being an expert — even if you also do this type of work. But recognize that the client wants other agencies as a part of the team, so be open to their expertise. And of course, you might learn something as well by having them at the table. You don't have to admit it out loud — but just be open to it.
- Lastly, if you've got a problem with the other agency, don't take it to the client first. Remember when we were kids and our parents told us to work things out on our own? That's the idea here. Attempt to work things out with the right people at the other agency. Only when those efforts have been exhausted should you go to the client. No one likes a tattletale — doesn't matter the situation or how old you are.
If you're the client
You need to realize you got yourself into this and this was the model you chose, so you have to manage it. I'm a big believer that the multi-agency model can be very, very successful for all parties involved. But if the client does not actually take ownership and take the lead, it can fail miserably. In fact, I would say the recommendations for you are much more important than what I've listed above for the agencies.
Vice President, Strategy & Development
Eleventy Marketing Group
Angie is ridiculously passionate about EVERYTHING she’s involved in — including the future and success of our nonprofit industry.
Angie is a senior exec with 25 years of experience in direct and relationship marketing. She is a C-suite consultant with experience over the years at both nonprofits and agencies. She currently leads strategy and development for marketing intelligence agency Eleventy Marketing Group. Previously she has worked at the innovative startup DonorVoice and as general manager of Merkle’s Nonprofit Group, as well as serving as that firm’s CRM officer charged with driving change within the industry. She also spent more 14 years leading the marketing, fundraising and CRM areas for two nationwide charities, The Arthritis Foundation and the American Cancer Society. Angie is a thought leader in the industry and is frequent speaker at events, and author of articles and whitepapers on the nonprofit industry. She also has received recognition for innovation and influence over the years.