How to manage your agency: lessons from the field

advertising agenciesIt’s a long road this path to digital enlightenment, and it involves many crossroads and epiphanies.

In the past 10 years I’ve been implementing digital campaigns, defining e-commerce strategy and I’ve been agency-side responsible for a challenging set of retail accounts. I’ve been on both sides of the fence when dealing with agency relationships.

This blog takes a peek at the wonderful mistakes I’ve made that today put me in a position of strength and confidence. You might well recognise some of these from your own experience, you might be able to suggest some more; we’re human after all.

Across all my roles there have been a few consistent themes and perhaps the most critical has been the need to closely manage relationships/partnerships.

Pivotal to the success of any e-commerce operation is the need to forge commercially sustainable relationships. 10 years ago I didn’t understand the complexity of commercial relationships but I’ve learned the hard way and am no longer fazed by the frequent issues that relationship management throws up.

Poor communication

You get out what you put in. It’s the Ronseal approach, it does what it says on the tin. If you aren’t good at communicating, you will cause confusion with your agency.

I’ve wasted time and money because I haven’t been clear enough with my requirements. A good account manager agency-side will question your briefs until they understand the detail but not every agency has such a person.

I once sent a brief for a newsletter sign-up page on the website but forgot to include any information on data management. My haste prevented me from thinking through the detail and implications of the requirement.

I’ve taught myself to pick apart every email and brief I intend to submit and ask myself “What am I really asking for?” I don’t send anything until it is crystal clear in my mind, otherwise how can I answer questions from the agency? I also structure each phone call so I have a clear objective for making the call and have access to any reference material that I might need to achieve it.

Playing games

It’s like the early sins of teenage dating: “I’m not calling her for at least three days”. I’ve unwittingly played games behind the scenes where I’ve not been 100% honest with my agency.

I mistakenly thought that if I let them dangle for a while or exaggerated the threat to their account from cheaper competition, they would come running and I’d get my way.

However, honesty and transparency are two of the most important aspects of a lasting relationship. Smart people will see through the bullshit. Of course you must protect your commercial interests but that can be done in a professional manner.

If you treat your agency as an underling or a pawn in an elaborate game of chess, you’ll get the service you deserve. If you treat them with respect and as a partner, you’ll often find they support you when you most need it.

Not speaking my mind

You’re sat in a meeting and decisions are being made that you don’t agree with. Like a living nightmare, you want to speak up but your mouth is dry and you suddenly develop an inability to open your lips. The moment passes and weeks later your doubts are proven right.

I’ve been through that several times, not willing to put my balls on the block even though I’m convinced I’ve got a better solution. Usually it’s down to insecurity and a lack of confidence in one’s own business acumen. One day you wake up and say enough. I’ve learned to objectively communicate my opinion and challenge the thinking of others without being obstructive.

Not everyone will welcome it; some people can’t handle being questioned. That’s their issue to handle not yours. As with weddings, speak your mind or forever hold your peace. Just do it calmly and politely.

Being influenced by the wrong people

I think this is the bête-noire of e-commerce managers who have not had a lot of commercial experience. You’re not yet used to the political shenanigans that go on behind the scenes. As with life, at work you will encounter strong personalities.

Some people will exert their influence without any regard for the impact it has on others. It’s amazing how a bit of flattery over a few drinks will make you think you’ve found your new best friend.

I’ve made this mistake when listening to people at senior level in both my own company and the agency. When client-side, trusting the wrong person can result in the delivery of a solution that doesn’t match company needs closely enough.

Smooth talkers have left me with an e-commerce platform that is poorly optimised for SEO because I listened to them instead of questioning the detail. I then had to explain to my Director why I hadn’t delivered what I had promised and then needed to spend more to achieve it. Schoolboy error and damaging to bonus payments.

Agency-side, the time I most regret was listening to a Director tell me how to handle a problem with a client account, being confrontational instead of building bridges.

I knew we were as much to blame for the issue but I listened and refused to compromise. I knew it was the wrong approach given the culture of the client team but I acquiesced. The result was a worsening in the relationship, bad word-of-mouth that was potentially personally damaging and a sharp rise in my stress levels.

Lacking the confidence of my convictions

Everybody has insecurities, even if they claim they don’t. At work insecurity will often manifest itself in a lack of conviction in your own decisions. As an E-commerce Manager you have to make hard decisions and you won’t always be right.

If you are not confident when making decisions, your team will realise this soon enough and will lose confidence in you as a manager. I’ve experience this first hand where my indecision has left team members confused and worried that there will be stormy waters ahead.

It is easier to manage the consequences of a decision you make than one that somebody else has made for you.

Trying to please everyone

It’s like the kid at school who wants to be liked by everyone. They try so hard that they don’t realise who is taking advantage. If you try to please everyone, you lose focus.

Working with an agency is not about being liked by everyone. There is a commercial angle that must be maintained and sometimes that means making decisions that some people might not like or agree with.

When I was younger, I accepted work because I didn’t want to stress the design team from my agency with additional changes even though I wasn’t happy with the output. The result was the implementation of work that didn’t have the desired impact and of which I was unenthused, not to mention the stress spike.

I’ve since learned that you have to make hard decisions. If you have a good relationship, you can influence people to support these decisions even if they do not delight them. The key is to explain the rationale for your decision and take ownership of the situation.

Not knowing when to say no

No means no. It doesn’t mean “No, but if you keep asking I’ll change my mind because you know I’m a pushover”. I’ve accepted project delays because of a persuasive director at the agency. The delays weren’t acceptable but I allowed them to get away with it because I didn’t like confrontation.

Now if something isn’t acceptable, I tell people and give them the reasons. I also tell them the consequences if they can’t support me or find a suitable compromise. Good communication and planning usually avoids this but sometimes you have to be firm and stand your ground. Knowing when to be flexible is a learning curve.

What lessons can you share with us?

Do these mistakes sound familiar? I’ve been lucky and benefited from the tutelage of some savvy people in the past 10 years but I’ve learned equally as much from those who, in my opinion, have no people and relationship management skills even though they consider themselves messianic.

Show me a businessman who has never made a mistake and I’ll show you someone who just isn’t aware of what good relationship management is about.

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