The Intricacies of a Successful Sandbox
I've been around the block a few times, and I've been on both sides of the block. I've run programs at nonprofits, and I've worked at agencies. What all this means is that I've seen my share of agency relationships.
Are you wondering about the title of this blog post? It refers to the dynamic of multiple agencies helping a nonprofit with its marketing and fundraising efforts. Believe it or not, there are situations where the sandbox is not always a fun place to play.
But before we go into all that, let's just step back and talk about the evolution of agency relationships over the years. The first time I was a nonprofit client was in 1995. I worked for a major brand in the health charity category. We had a big program, a big budget and big goals. The term "full service" was a critical element of every agency ad and sales pitch. And, of course, every nonprofit wanted to know it was working with "the best."
I'm not going to get into how organizations made or make decisions around "who is best." (Boy oh boy — that's a totally different blog. But it's going on the list for the future.)
The evolution since 1995 when I first hit the nonprofit scene has been interesting. Back then, we were primarily a one-channel industry. Back then, data analytics was not a topic on most of our agendas — well, at least not on the first day of the meeting. And back then, we seemed to have one primary agency that did everything. When things were going great, we called it being "teamed up with the best." When things were going not so great, we often said things like, "We are worried that we have all our eggs in one basket."
But the agency model for direct marketing was often one agency doing it all to create a streamlined approach to fundraising direct mail. This model also created opportunities for the nonprofit because it took less staff to manage one agency.
But then things started to change. There are lots of reasons why people think it changed ... perhaps it was the introduction of additional channels, the heavier focus on analytics or the fundraising challenges that seemed to occur every few years that wreaked havoc with our results. Whatever it was, a lot of nonprofits started looking at multi-agency relationships. This brought a whole host of changes to the scene. The staffing model at the nonprofit had to adjust to manage multiple agencies. Risk was perceived to be spread out but only if you still had "the best" in each of the areas you were managing. And there was the overarching benefit of new ideas brought to the table by having multiple partners thinking through your business challenges and opportunities.
Sounds good, right? Well, believe it or not, it can fail miserably. Over the years the industry has seemed to shift back and forth between the "agency of record" model and the "multi-agency" model with different players at the table.
One thing is for sure though, with the multi-agency model came a whole new set of requirements for both the nonprofit and the agencies. Nonprofits had to become master integrators. Agencies had to put aside a lot of feelings and ideas that were engrained from the past and be open to a new level of sharing and collaboration.
Let's be real though — not everyone plays well in a sandbox! So, here's my list of things for each side of the table to take into consideration to make it as successful as possible in that 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.
- You are the lead. It is your program. You have made the decisions to bring multiple agencies together, so you have to manage the integration. It is not their job because if you asked any of them, they would have preferred that you use them for everything and not have multiple agencies at the table.
- You might have one agency that is the lead for strategy, but you own the vision for your program. Make sure the vision is well-known. Make sure the strategy is understood by all involved. And make sure you are the voice of the strategy whenever possible. You might have an agency who is lead on strategy, but you are still the ultimate decision maker. Plus, by gaining opinions on other strategies from other agencies, you might gain some unique opinions.
- There are multiple levels of goals in marketing and fundraising. Make sure everyone knows which goals he/she are accountable for. The revenue goals can be complicated if multiple agencies are helping on one program — but accountability is key. Also, operational goals and setting expectations are a critical part of the integration process. In multi-agency relationships there are schedules that involve those agencies. If one agency misses a deadline, another agency downstream sometimes has to play catch-up. That creates very uncomfortable conversations sometimes. Make sure you, as the client, are managing the schedules when it comes to missing deadlines or other schedule goals. I did recommend that agencies try to work some things out by themselves, but that does not give the client the permission to turn a blind eye to problems and challenges occurring throughout the process. Same goes for budget management. If there are multiple inputs to the budget from multiple agencies, make sure you are very aware of the specifics of each agency. I've seen it before — one agency overspends, didn't manage the costs of a specific component or didn't communicate a change in costs, which then makes the whole campaign look bad from a budget perspective.
- Make sure you are driving and requiring participation from all agencies involved. Just as it is problematic for one agency to "take the lead" if it has not been hired to do so, it is equally problematic for an agency to not participate equally. This applies to meetings, preparation of materials, strategic brainstorming, etc.
- Don't shy away from conflict. Even the best sandbox players have tough days. When it's time to be the parent, you have to take on that role. If there is a problem brewing in the "team," get to it early and be clear about your expectations going forward.
- Lastly, make sure you communicate with all agencies. Each agency wants to know how it is doing. Each agency wants your time and energy. Don't pick favorites, and don't spend time based on the amount you are paying one agency over another. In the end, you decided to bring each agency to the table for a specific purpose, be it big or small. Make sure you are making them each feel like a valuable part of the team. Treat everyone the same, and have the same rules for each of your partners. Celebrate with everyone, and hold feet to the fire when necessary in a fair way.
There are benefits to each of these models. There are also challenges with each of these models. I'm a fan of the multi-agency model because I do believe fundraising and marketing have become very complex and having experts in the multiple areas all come together is a winning strategy. However, integration across the agencies is the sole responsibility of the client. It would be a shame to spend the money on this type of model, which is typically more expensive, only to lose all the benefits because the client doesn't know how to truly manage it for optimal results.
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.