I’ve worked at a couple of places where there has been ‘bad blood’ between the client organisation and their outsourced digital agency. These client-vendor disputes are costly, time-consuming, energy-sapping and just plain bad for business for both organisations involved.
Having worked extensively on the client-side, I know that client organisations are inclined to lay the blame firmly at the feet of the agency when things go awry. We’re paying them good money to produce great creative work, right? They’re the experts in digital technology, right? So how come they’ve failed to produce the goods?
In many instances, though, it’s not the agency’s fault – in my experience, one of the main reasons for disputes is a failure on the part of the client organisation to understand their own business requirements and a failure to adequately articulate those requirements to the agency.
Too often I’ve seen organisations sling a haphazard brief to the agency and expect them to divine the client organisation’s requirements. And then the organisation wonders why the end-product doesn’t hit the mark. This is laziness on the part of the briefer.
To avoid this situation, I suggest taking a project management approach and applying some intellectual rigour to the project initiation process. The initiator should develop two key documents:
- A business case. An internal document, the business case forces the initiator to undertake a cost-benefit analysis of the proposed initiative and can be used to justify funding internally. The business case should answer the following questions:
- What is the genesis of the initiative? Why is it being proposed?
- Does it fit with the organisation’s wider strategy?
- What audience does the initiative seek to target?
- What are the benefits that the initiative will bring?
- What represents success and how will it be measured?
- Are there any ‘disbenefits’ if the initiative goes ahead? (I’ve taken this word from PRINCE2 project management methodology)
- What alternative options are there for the initiative? Full solution versus ‘cut-down’ version?
- What time frames are associated with the initiative?
- What are the estimated costs of the initiative?
- How do the costs stack up against the benefits? Is it an appropriate investment?
- What are the risks associated with the initiative? Are the risks manageable?
- A brief to agency. Assuming that the business case is a good one and the investment is justified, a detailed brief to agency, drawing again on project management principles, should be prepared – here’s a template that I use:
- . The brief to agency covers the following:
- The name and description of the product to be delivered by this initiative.
- What will the product consist of in its entirety? What are the specific deliverables of the initiative (including any specifications and documents to be produced in the process)?
- What will the product ‘do’? A detailed explanation of the functional expectations of the product.
- Who specifically is the product aimed at? What specific audience requirements are there for this product?
- Are there any specific quality requirements that are expected of the final product?
- What non-negotiable criteria must the product meet before we will accept it?
- How will the product be accepted and who will accept it?
- Who are the stakeholders for this initiative? Who is impacted by this piece of work?
- When should this product be delivered? Are there any specific time constraints?
- Are there any tolerances for quality, timescales or cost? What actions are taken if a tolerance is exceeded?
- What will determine the success or failure of this product (quantifiable metrics and goals)?
- How should this product integrate with other digital systems and campaigns?
There’s an important note to make here: agencies liked to be briefed in detail, but they can also take umbrage to briefs that are too prescriptive, as these can curtail the agency’s scope for creativity. A happy balance needs to be struck (I must admit to erring on the side of prescription, as this reduces the prospect of the agency misinterpreting the requirements).
Notwithstanding the requirement for a detailed brief to the agency, the best approach for a positive client-agency relationship is to work as a team and consider any success a joint success, and any failure a joint failure. If the end product doesn’t turn out the way it should, then we’re both to blame.
It works both ways, of course. Agencies need to ensure that they develop a deep understanding of their clients’ businesses. When receiving briefs, the agency needs to ask the right questions and ‘back brief’ the client on the requirement. Importantly, the agency needs to ensure that the client gets due recognition for their involvement in successful initiatives – I’ve worked with agencies that have unilaterally nominated their work for awards without first advising the client. I think that’s poor form.
Client organisations need to reconsider the way they interact with their agencies: they need to work collaboratively, ditch the ‘master-slave’ mindset and take more responsibility for failures, rather than reflexively pinning the blame on the agency. The production of a business case and the delivery of a detailed brief to the agency will help to manage expectations and avoid failure in the first place.