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Agency Relationships: Learning From Mistakes

June 23, 2016 | By Jessica Lillian

  • Even the best b-to-b agency relationships can hit snags over the course of a project
  • Steve DeLeon discusses some critical lessons he’s learned from CLEAResult’s agency experiences
  • An ample discovery phase and honest communications are essential for agency project success

No agency project or relationship is perfect. B-to-b marketers know that no matter how carefully they vet their prospective partners and outline their goals and expectations, things sometimes go wrong. Whether the selected agency has been tapped to complete a one-time Web site overhaul or lead a multi-year PR initiative, minor mistakes or misunderstandings along the way are common.

Fortunately, those inevitable times when agency engagements falter can provide insights for the next agency project or partnership.

I recently spoke with Steve DeLeon, director of communications at Austin-based CLEAResult, about his experiences working with agencies on CLEAResult’s Web site redesigns. Steve recalled a few common mistakes he’s noted over the course of his agency relationships – and the important lessons he’s learned and applied to subsequent work with agencies.

CLEAResult, which primarily sells energy efficiency program management/operations services to electric and gas utilities across the United States and Canada, has embarked on more than one Web site redesign during Steve’s tenure.

One early lesson: don’t shortchange the discovery phase. He recalls one project that, while ultimately successful, showed his team just how important this phase is for the agency and client alike. “We didn’t set them up for success,” he admitted. “What we do is complicated.”

Given the ever-changing regulatory issues, diverse stakeholders and intricacies of utilities’ energy delivery programs, the agency partner working on the Web site probably could have used more time and help getting up to speed on CLEAResult’s business and its site visitors’ needs.

Agency/client communication is critical throughout the duration of any engagement, but finding the right balance can be tricky. Too little feedback or too much feedback (or too many stakeholders) can create confusion, delays and unmet expectations.

Steve recommends casting a wide feedback net in the early stages of a project to make sure everyone’s voices are heard – but then backing off and allowing the agency and core internal experts to do their work without excessive interference.

“We were a little too iterative with the broad group,” he recalled, describing another past Web site project. “You need to have a system of checks and balances for showing progress, but we let too many people have opinions on things that were outside their areas of expertise.” For instance, non-designers were shown early wireframes with the standard stated caveat that these versions did not represent a final design, but nonetheless provided heavy artistic feedback that slowed the overall process.

This lesson has already been put into action on a current agency engagement. “We’re narrowing the scope of who’s involved,” he said. “We’ll include key representatives from each stakeholder group, but the one-on-ones are just between our project manager and theirs.”

Equally importantly, those designated representatives on the client side must feel comfortable speaking up, and the agency must not hesitate to deliver criticism when needed.

Steve recommends preventing communications pitfalls early on – starting during the agency selection phase. When evaluating partners for a more recent Web site project, CLEAResult brought in three finalists for in-person interviews to evaluate not only their compatibility, but also their willingness to tell their potential clients things they may not want to hear.

“Many firms tiptoed around saying anything critical about the existing Web site,” he said. The winning partner was unafraid to mention what it perceived as flaws on the current site – and then explained how it would help CLEAResult resolve these issues as part of the redesign. Establishing trust and openness early on can set the tone for effective communications throughout the project.

“We put a lot on the agency we select,” Steve said. “We want them to tell us what we don’t know. We want to articulate our goals and then make sure that the right people are empowered to go ahead and do their thing.”

Jessica Lillian

Jessica F. Lillian is a senior editor and content strategy manager at SiriusDecisions and has more than a decade of b-to-b editorial experience, including five years as the editor of national b-to-b magazines. Follow Jessica on Twitter @jessica_lillian

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