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Relationship advice: tips for working with agencies

17 May 2016

When it comes to working with agencies, a good relationship between an agency and its charity client is essential in order to create a collaborative partnership. Good relationships lead to great work and the creation of valuable products.

In our experience working with lots of charity clients, we’ve started to see a shift in the last two years. In the past, it was common for agencies to provide a broad digital service at a distance. Now it’s much more about using specialist services and there’s a focus on collaborative working. More often now, we participate in joint UX and design workshops where we sketch design together on paper, or development sprints where project managers on both sides plan together.

During the last Heads of Digital networking group meeting, we considered the importance of this relationship, how to keep it fresh and what causes breakdowns. 

Charities are changing the way they work with agencies

The new approach is largely down to two main changes within the charity sector. Firstly, internal digital teams have grown and increased their skills across all the digital disciplines. Secondly, there has been a move to recruit digital project managers in-house who can liaise between agencies and relevant teams within charities. These changes have meant the relationship between charities and their agencies have evolved. Additionally, there is a drive across the sector to work in an agile way.

Successful relationships 

Any good working partnership takes time and effort. The best relationships are forged between agencies who understand a charity’s mission, objectives, and its internal processes. Charities can get the most out of the partnership when they understand what motivates the agency. An agency can also bring an outside perspective on digital trends and the organisation’s digital strategy. These factors enable both parties to work seamlessly towards the project goals together. 

Despite the growth of internal knowledge and team capacity over the years, there is still a need and desire to use agencies. This is especially true of small-medium charities who do not have the budget or resources to build internal expertise. Many larger charities still like to work with agencies for specialist services or to deliver specific products like donation funnels or tribute funds websites.

From a practical point of view, working with agencies can also take the pressure off when certain teams within charities are pushing to get things done quickly. Being able to remind them there’s an agency cost involved can prevent unnecessary products being created and instead increase focus on those which yield the most return on investment or achieve important objectives. 

The challenges of working with agencies

Despite some of the benefits, there are drawbacks to working with agencies that need to be managed. Staff changes, within agencies and charities, can mean relationships which have been nurtured for months or years are altered and new relationships need to be built, which can take time. From the agency side, limited understanding of the organisation’s internal politics, structures, charitable aims, digital strategy and business needs can create possible conflict and misunderstanding. This can lead to the dreaded ‘breakdown’ of charity and agency relationships and reinforces the need to create an open, honest relationship from the beginning.

A good relationship is a collaborative experience requiring investment from both sides throughout the project lifespan. Our advice to charities: be choosy and aim to select the right agency for the right project with appropriate expertise and understanding. 

More like this
Find out about our Heads of Digital networking group, exclusive to organisational members
Download our best practice guide, Working with agencies: How to be a smart client 

Adam Fowles

digital account director, WPN Chameleon

Adam is a digital account director at Addition by WPN Chameleon and has over 5 years of experience managing and advising on digital projects in-house at Age UK and the Stroke Association plus agency side for FTSE listed organisations.