Ask an Expert: How To Optimize Your In-House / Agency Relationship

We asked both in-house and agency side marketing leaders to tell us how they maximize their partnerships. Learn about their communication strategies here.

As attention spans of consumers shrink and the world market becomes more competitive, businesses have to find ways to become top-of-class in their respective industries. One way to reach the top of your vertical is utilizing marketing agencies to assist with either strategic or tactical marketing work. For this month’s “Ask an Expert” we talked to nine experts on the client and agency side.

We asked:

“How can in-house marketers and agencies maximize their relationship and produce the best business results?”

Experts answered:

melissa-faithMelissa Faith – Marketing Director at UnitedHealth Group

Interview a few agencies, and find a team that understands your visions for your product or service. Set expectations up front with deliverables, realistic timeline &  budget and have fun! It is such a rewarding feeling when a campaign comes together for the consumer and all the stakeholders!


michelle-killebrewMichelle Killbrew – Social Business Strategy Program Director at IBM

Primarily “partner” well… Open communication is key.




JoshBraaten_05 - CopyJosh Braaten – Director of Inbound Marketing at Collegis Education

My biggest tip is to understand where you need your agency’s help versus what you should be doing in-house. If you need a strategic partner, you’ll likely want to shape your partnership to see your agency contributing big-picture strategies, workflow and process ideas. If you want a production agency, then you should have the workflow and expected deliverables mapped out. Knowing how to best use your agency partners to develop your overall strategy is key and will save you time, effort and inefficiencies due to redundancy down the road.

sSarah Evans – Founder and chief strategist of Faves + co.

Collaboration! Make sure communication happens in an open place like Evernote or Google Drive. Also, pick up the phone and call when it’s time instead of creating endless communication trails that are not productive.



mel-carsonMel Carson – Founder of Delightful Communications

I’ve worked on both sides of the agency/in-house fence and the best, most fruitful relationships all stem from great communication and forward planning. During my seven years at Microsoft, planning ahead and having milestones jotted down was a discipline drummed into us very early on in our roles. Thinking through the steps to a particular goal, breaking it down and setting realistic timelines, really helped to focus my work on what was important during a project, and what was timewasting.

Now that I’m on the consulting side, I encourage my clients to give me all the detail I need to know to give them the most accurate picture of when work will be completed. I check in with them early and often so there are no surprises. There’s nothing worse than a last-minute fire-drill (for both sides) because someone didn’t think ahead and provide all the information upfront to make a project smooth sailing. Sure there’ll be bumps in the road, and we all need to be agile, but don’t be that person who makes us all stay late working when we could be in the pub on a Friday night!

elliot-tElliot Tomaeno – Founder of Astrsk PR

I think it’s important to set goals based on volume and quality. Identifying tier one, two, and three press is a good start. From there work together with your agency to set goals for what volume of coverage you are looking for is within reach for each tier.



kristianKrystian Szastok – Senior SEO Manager at Jellyfish

From my experience the most successful relationships were when a business trusted their agency. You just have to trust your choice and ‘let them get on with it’. Ask questions when an agency delivers a report, or in weekly/monthly calls, but don’t question every single decision and every single emailing asking for reasoning behind the recommendations.
Also, full buy-in, which is part of trust, be ready to implement many actions and strategy that the agency recommends, then once you reach the point when they promised you results evaluate, but commit fully and follow through what they recommended before you judge and question the strategy itself.

steve-clark-headshotStephen Clark – Owner of Clark Optimization

Your approach to your agency will determine how much you get out of them. Think about this: agencies work with multiple clients. The advantage to this scenario for your business is that they have a broader perspective on SEO/PPC/marketing than you can possibly have. They are learning from multiple unique scenarios (their individual clients) at once, and then passing those lessons along to you. As an SEO consultant, I have the opportunity to work on multiple websites on a regular basis, and therefore gain broader understanding of search algorithms and how they apply to different situations (a special advantage over an in-house SEO). Oftentimes subject matter experts have some really good nuggets of information that only this kind of experience can yield. And that’s the kind of knowledge you want to be getting.

lexi-millsLexi Mills – Head of  Digital at Dynamo PR

One of the key factors that I have seen contribute to successful in-house and agency relationships is spending some time getting to know each others’ skill sets.  A less formal meeting in a coffee shop or restaurant can be great for this as it puts everyone at ease. If you do this in a formal setting you will find that the various teams can become more defensive and territorial which is not conducive to effective collaboration.  Once you know where each others strengths lie you can then utilise them more effectively.  Sounds simple but the way most people’s knowledge of digital has developed is non linear and as such many people can be highly competent in one area and not as experienced in another which can make cross communications difficult if you don’t understand this.

Some other tactics I have been using with our clients is making sure that everyone gets invited to all agency meetings and gets added on to all reporting emails.  These meetings and reporting emails tend to happen once every few weeks.   It came to my attention a while ago that the SEO teams and agencies were often not invited or cc’d on reporting emails.  By having a representative there at these meetings and looping everyone in on reporting emails you will find that the teams naturally work together more.

Something I have always been a huge believer in is making sure in-house teams are open about their KPI’s as these often differ from their agencies.  If your agencies know how you’re being measured they can often pass opportunities on that they may not have otherwise. It’s also good to send your agencies Google Calendar invites for when the in-house team is due to have any big feedback meetings  This means the agencies know to get in touch a few days before to find out if they can provide any relevant information for the meetings and equally means that the in-house team will not get hit with loads of emails from their agencies whilst they are preparing for these meetings.

val-gilpinValory Gilpin – Director of Branding and new membership acquisition at Calrson rezidor hotel group

I recommend that a company in-house marketing department use a very detailed creative brief that will ensure a thorough description of the project you need from your agency. The result will be getting a project back from your agency that you envisioned and it will save your company budget by not having multiple versions going back and forth.

In addition to the creative brief, set up regular status meetings with the agency creative team to ensure you are answering any questions they may have or providing updates about the project.

Also, a picture speaks a thousand words. For example, if you have something in mind for the type of marketing piece you are looking for, find an example to send along with your creative brief. This will take the “guess work” out of the equation and provide the agency with a clear picture of what you would like in the final marketing piece.

Checklist For a successful partnership

  • Setting realistic timelines and budgets
  • Open communication: pick up the phone
  • Use of real-time communication tools like Trello, Google Docs, and Evernote
  • Full buy-in and trust on the client side
  • Prioritization of business goals: volume vs. quality
  • Developing S.M.A.R.T. business objectives (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely)
  • Defining the agency as a strategic partner versus a production agency
  • The use of creative briefs and scope of work documents
  • Regular status meetings (weekly)
  • Understand in-house and agency perspectives and subject matter expertise

And… here are my two cents: Offer shared access web analytics and enterprise marketing tools: this allows the agency and in-house partner to have the same level of context.

There you have it – Stay tuned for the next “Ask an Expert” in six weeks, and in the meantime comment on your opinions on this topic!

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