Whether an agency is in-house or external, some challenges are common to both. Brian Kessman, founder of Lodestar Agency Consulting, has advice on how to tackle them.

There's been plenty of debate about the differences between in-house and external agencies and which works better for the brands they serve. We know that each of their different operating environments creates unique opportunities for success. However, as I look at industry research reports and recall conversations I've had with agency leaders, I also see that both are also beginning to realize that they have shared challenges.

The biggest is that innovative creativity alone will no longer provide the level of value that their clients expect. They know that in addition to seeking cutting edge creativity, they are expected to deliver an increasing volume of omnichannel content with a faster speed to market.

While attempting to fulfill these expectations, they have all shared with me that they are facing the following challenges:

  • "Our team members work across functional silos and are therefore slower and less collaborative than they should be."
  • "Our partnerships with key marketing representatives are less collaborative than they should be."
  • "We don't have all of the right skill sets or enough qualified talent on staff."
  • "We don't have enough time for people to develop new skills."
  • "We have a minimal or non-existent training budget."

The key takeaways here are that creative agencies know that they need to facilitate greater collaboration for a faster speed of delivery, adaptability, and agility. If marketing and agency creative teams don't start working more closely together or invest in training to learn the best ways to do this while also closing their skills gaps, I don't see them being able to achieve the performance gains that the current marketing environment demands.

So what are the first steps toward greater collaboration and well-prioritized skills development? With some guidance and the dedication of your leadership team, I would recommend applying your attention to these foundational efforts to begin:

  1. Refresh the meaning of client "value" within your agency
  2. Experiment with a small, cross-functional team structure
  3. Map out the skills you need to support these changes and begin training

Refresh the meaning of client "value" within your agency

This step should be your starting point. Generally, there are two main ways you can provide value to a client. You can help them generate new revenue, and you can help them increase their savings by creating opportunities for them to reduce their costs. The creative work you produce should focus on the former (revenue). The way your teams work together should focus on the latter (cost reduction). Ask yourself: where in your delivery model are the opportunities to reduce the costs of time, effort, and money that your clients endure? To reveal this hidden data, think in terms of value streams. Aligning on this new definition of value is a critical step for any agency looking to deliver work faster.

What is a value stream?

A value stream is the series of steps that your teams use to deliver a valuable product to your client. In a single campaign or project, you will have several different value streams and end-products. For example, in the planning of an online campaign, you might have the following different types of value streams:

  • Strategy work: A value stream that results in an insightful, data-informed creative briefing for the online campaign.
  • Creative work: A value stream that results in a creative concept and master banner ad to guide the production of a series of banner ads.
  • Production work: A value stream that results in the production of different sized banner ads based on the master unit.
  • Adaptation work: A value stream that results in the adaptation or editing of those same banner ads later on in the year for their reuse in a new promotion.
  • Transfer work: A value stream that results in the delivery of varying formats for final creative files.

By mapping out the series of steps for each of your value streams, you can begin to uncover activities, artifacts, staffing, or costs that could otherwise be avoided or reduced. Visualizing your value streams also provides a foundation for the next two recommendations.

Experiment with a small, cross-functional team structure

Almost all of the agencies that call me in for help have their value streams spanning across a siloed organizational structure. Brand planners work with other brand planners in their functional silo until they produce an insightful creative briefing for an online campaign. Then they hand off the creative brief to a copywriter and art director to come up with a concept and master ad unit to guide the production of a series of banner ads. Then they hand off their work to a studio team to produce the work.

Each hand-off is costly in terms of time and communication overhead, and this increases the risk for mistakes or revisions. This style of workflow also requires having someone to manage each hand-off, which is one of the primary reasons agencies find themselves needing to introduce project managers into their process.

If this sounds like your agency, you may want to consider a change. Try organizing small cross-functional teams around a combination of value streams for fewer hand-offs. Of course, every agency will need to design their organizational structure to match the unique aspects of their business.

Let's examine one example in the context of an omnichannel campaign, beginning with the creation of the creative briefing. Your agency could start by organizing a small cross-functional team around researching related consumer behavior and delivering the resulting brief. Instead of only planners owning this strategy work, this new team might also include a senior representative from account management, creative, and technology/digital, and yes, this includes collaboration from your marketing client.

All would work together providing new perspectives and abilities from their respective discipline with proper upfront consideration for how the brief will need to inform a team that will become accountable for producing a wide variety of innovative content. Small teams of this nature are critical for any agency looking for greater collaboration as well as to deliver work faster.

Map out the skills you need and begin training

If your top concerns seem to center around skills gaps, use the value streams you created for a jump start. For each step in a value stream, think about the outcomes you want to produce. Then, write them down along the stream. As you do, you may realize that a different or new mixture of skills and experience would be beneficial for producing those outcomes. Map out those skills. Use this map to design and prioritize your training and skill development program for your agency. This step is critical to ensure you're building those collaborative teams with the right skills, abilities, and training paths.

Just the beginning

These are just the beginning steps of what can be a much broader and beneficial transformation of your agency. They require a significant investment of effort, more than what many in-house and external agencies have traditionally been willing to dedicate in the past. However, to keep pace with the speed of business and remain relevant, it's a critical step for your agency and the clients you serve.

Brian Kessman has 20 years of experience working in agencies and is the founder of Lodestar Agency Consulting. Through Lodestar, Brian helps agency principals connect their business strategy, delivery models, and organizational design to produce higher-value employee and client relationships.