Eight essentials for successful collaborative partnerships

There’s been a lot of talk lately about collaborative working in the creative industries, and ‘virtual agencies’ are a great way for smaller companies or individual freelancers to pitch for (and win) work with clients who might historically have stuck with larger, traditional agencies.

Fantastic though this is, both for creatives, and for clients – who get the benefits of agile teams built around their specific needs, there are pitfalls for the unwary.

I’m a copywriter with a background in brand strategy and my copywriting agency specialises in helping our clients build their brand through their B2B communications. Over the last few years, I’ve had the privilege of working with numerous creative partners around Kent, building teams of brand and marketing strategists, designers, copywriters, web designers, SEO specialists and more – mostly highly successfully. But we’ve all learned a few things along the way…so here are my top eight rules for helping your virtual agency deliver for your clients.

1. Establish a clear project lead

With any project, you need a linchpin, and this is especially true when multiple agencies or freelancers are involved. As one client put it ‘I want to know whose window to put a brick through if it goes wrong.’ A more positive way of putting this is that a strong project lead ensures that the client feels the security of a well-managed project, and all the partners know their parameters – giving everyone the best opportunity to bring their particular skills and expertise together. Often this will be whoever brought the business to the partnership in the first place. But it ain’t necessarily so. Everyone needs to agree on who it is.

2. Get your communications channels sorted out from the start
Your client may prefer a single point of contact (much as an Account Lead would provide in a traditional agency). Or, they might prefer to be rather more hands-on, and communicate directly with each project partner. In my experience, I’ve found that the larger the client company, and the more experienced the client, the more likely they are to want a single point of contact. Owner-managers often want to retain more control themselves – perhaps indicative of where they are in the own business development! Whatever, ensure that the channels you set up are clear, and check back that they’re working for everyone.

3. Establish a clear brief for all partners
I know. This sounds too obvious to be included. But I’ve recently worked on a collaborative project where a new partner was brought in to the mix by the client, several months in, and refused to engage with the concept of a written brief. ‘No need, we’ve got this,’ they asserted. Due to specific circumstances, they ran with it, unhindered. Care to guess what happened? It was only the flexibility and commitment of other partners, and the client’s understanding, that saved the whole thing from complete disaster. Get a written brief covering every aspect of the project sorted at the outset, ensure the client has signed off on it, and insist that every partner signs up to their bit.

4. Set out a clear project schedule
Same goes for this one really. Should be obvious. But the more people are involved, and the more different aspects of a project there are, the more important your project road map becomes.

5. Make sure every partner is clear about their role
On that note, when you’ve got different agencies or individuals working collaboratively, it’s essential that each knows what they are responsible for, and how new work arising from the collaboration should be handled. You’re working in partnership, remember. So if you’ve been brought in to look after a particular element of it, and some additional work crops up, the collaborative thing to do is to refer it back to the project lead. Going grabbing it out from under the noses of the other partners (especially if it’s something they also offer as a service) might get you additional return in the short term. But it’s not going to endear you to the other partners, and you probably won’t get asked back. It’s called collaborative working for a reason, ladies and gents, so leave the dog-eat-dog mentality for competitive pitches.

6. Establish how the billing is going to work
If each partner is billing the client separately, then their own T&Cs may well apply. But what if the client wants to pay a single bill each month, or at each key stage (depending on the length and nature of the project)? Will all the billing go through the lead partner? Will they put a mark-up on it? And does this mean that they are shouldering the main financial risk and paying out to partners before the client pays? There’s no single answer – but the key things are to set out how it’s going to work, be transparent, and keep it consistent. That way, no-one can feel as though they are getting short-changed. And the client knows exactly where they stand when it comes to paying the bills. You might need to have a lawyer draw up a set of T&Cs specifically for collaborations – so that each partner signs up to them, as well as the client.

7. Look forward to what happens after the end of the project
What happens if ongoing work looks likely (like a monthly commitment to content writing, SEO, social media management, website hosting and maintenance)? At what point, if at all, will the partnership dissolve and the client’s relationships transfer to individual partners? Depending on how you set things up at the outset, this may be a non-issue. But if you’ve had someone managing things centrally, you’ll need to consider it.

8. Remember it’s about meeting your client’s needs
There’s a reason they’ve chosen to work with a virtual team. What is it? Listening, learning about your client’s needs and building that trusting relationship is crucial to the long-term success of your partnership. Your collaborative team includes the client, after all.

Every project is different – whether you’re in a traditional agency or embracing collaborative partnerships. (You could, of course, be doing both!) You learn something new each time. I’d love to hear what you’ve learned.

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