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Agile at Work: Building Stronger Client-Agency Partnerships

 
 
 

By Meredith Neistadt and Tobi DeVito

The times, they are a-changin’, and the traditional client-agency model is not immune. As companies continue to build out robust in-house creative and technology teams, the demand for design and marketing agencies to provide low-cost/high-frequency services declines.

The game of scale is over for digital design and marketing agencies.

Brands today are in the business of inspiring people to think differently and change their behavior. Clients need transformative ideas that will enable their brand to break through the noise and congestion of highly saturated, non-differentiated markets. At the same time, agencies must retire the quantity plays, and embrace the quality plays. They must create brand experiences for their clients that inspire meaningful, valuable connections with customers.

As an Agile Scrum Master and a Product Owner with a combined 30+ years of industry experience we have seen, time and time again, adopting Agile principles is one of the most successful ways for agencies to partner with clients to deliver differentiated solutions and products to wanting business and consumers.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of misconceptions about what “Agile” means, and how to implement it. As Ben Edwards and Sol Sender, founding principals at design and strategy firm Edwards + Sender, recently noted, “Agile” is bantered around—from Account Execs to Design Directors—as if just saying the word ensures a self-organizing team will iteratively create a user-centric product.

To help you implement Agile processes in your own agency/client partnership, we’ve compiled the following five key tenets we believe agencies and clients alike must embrace if a product is to have a fighting chance at being developed with Agile principles.

1. Find comfort in ambiguity
Abandoning the traditional service-based model and entering into a solution-based agreement with an agency on an Agile project requires clients (and let’s be honest, Procurement Officers) to embrace the ambiguous. Client stakeholders must understand that they are not buying an off-the-shelf product or service complete with standard activities and deliverables. Rather, they must embrace the concept that their company is entering into a partnership with an agency that will result in a customer-centric solution in order to attain their uniquely defined business objectives.

This repositioning also puts the onus on agencies to evolve how they sell to clients. The days of landing new work just by responding to a canned RFP are coming to a close.

Sharing case studies, securing client testimonials, developing prototypes, and conducting collaborative workshops are becoming common practices required by agencies to secure Agile projects.

Solution-based engagements are as much (if not more) about approach and alignment than about capabilities and project plans. Yet, in the absence of an agreed-upon scope of deliverables, an Agile project requires agencies and clients to collectively define the Product Vision before a single feature is built. By sitting side-by-side to answer the Why?, For whom?, What?, and How? of the future solution, the product teams and client stakeholders ensure complete understanding, agreement, and clarity between their teams. The Product Vision, not the push towards “Big Reveal,” becomes the beacon.   

2. Embrace Collaboration
Client stakeholders may assume that an external group of fully-dedicated staff equates to an extension of their internal design or development departments who exist solely to field requests on demand. At the same time, agencies can be extremely hesitatant to “open the kimono” on the inner workings of their creative process, refusing to share and ask for stakeholder input on work that is still in progress.

Collaboration and respect between and among teams is essential to upholding the value proposition of an Agile project: Rapid development of live code shipped to real users. Clients and agencies must find comfort with the terms of a solution-based agreement as they are quite different from traditional waterfall or service-based projects. Some of the greatest barriers for both sides to embrace can be:

  • Attending and giving regularly held presentations of work in progress to solicit and provide constructive feedback.
  • Identifying sponsor user testing—including customers—and actually using that feedback to inform feature development.
  • Dedicating and incorporating subject matter experts onto the team to contribute critical business and operational insight.

3. Believe in User-Centered Design
We’ve talked about how the traditional client-agency model is eroding, and in its place we’re finding that Agile practices allow for a much closer—and fruitful—relationship on both sides. The glue to this relationship is a commonly held belief in building solutions that are designed for the end user. This belief requires a level of openness that can put clients and agencies alike in uncharted territory that feels risky to their reputations and practices.

Clients must open themselves up to user feedback on work that is still in progress, which could reflect directly on their business and brand. It’s a scary prospect to share unfinished, unpolished work with customers who are being asked to “judge” a product your company has invested in. But for a user-centered approach to have a real impact on the end product, clients must abandon their preconceptions of what their customers need and want, and stay focused on the bigger goal: developing, refining, and delivering the right product.

In turn, agencies should revise their review cycles to accommodate continuous user input and must have teams in place who are responsive and can design against iterative user feedback.

Openness pays off. With Agile methods, users actually get what they need out of the product—because it is an informed solution that is designed in part by them. And, with a product that solves their problem, clients often see increased customer usage and repeat adoption, thereby achieving their business objectives.

4. Build the Right Team
Siloes are out, integrated teams are in. Clients are increasingly sophisticated—and aware—of how agencies are structured and how they approach staffing. A significant value of an Agile project is a dedicated, multidisciplinary team. So, agencies must ensure the right team mix for the work at hand.

Below is a checklist of product team “must haves” that clients can use to confirm their agency partner is delivering the best possible team mix to deliver on the solution at hand:

  • A dedicated team. Agencies can be, and at times are, best served by swapping out talent on an Agile project. But, time is money and that money should be dedicated to team activities, not agency inefficiencies. These exchanges can have little to no negative impact on the work if the agency invests in proper on- and off-boarding practices. However, agencies must ensure that moves on the team do not come at the client’s expense.
  • Disciplinary expertise. Different stages of a product life cycle will demand different skills. In the time leading up to the first release, a team may require a more visual Creative Director to help define the design language of the product or a Data Architect to construct the database model. However, once the product in in the hands of users, an Experience Designer and server-side Engineer maybe a better fit iterate upon the foundation established by their colleagues. In fact, one of the greatest benefits of partnering with an agency on an Agile project is the depth and breadth of their talent bench across disciplines and expertise.
  • Bigger is not better. Padding an Agile team with dedicated hyper-specialized roles is a surefire way to replicate the traditional, siloed agency model you’re trying to avoid. Instead, realize that while you need to match the right talent with the needs of the product, a large team full of experts isn’t required. Smaller, focused product teams composed of the essential roles allow an agency to quickly and cohesively build the type of interdisciplinary expertise that makes Agile teams hum—designers that code, UXs that write copy, engineers that order donuts. This also allows a dedicated group to dig deep into the client’s business, market, and industry to truly understand the issues at hand.
  • Colocation is key. Colocation has been shown over and over again to be critical in ensuring team efficiency, self-organization, and productivity. Both Tobi and Meredith have seen a significant payoff in investing in keeping the majority of a product teams seated in the same office, ideally at the same table. Sourcing staff from several office locations is fine, so long as there is a clear plan that is transparent to the client on how the agency envisions bringing that team together, physically, in one space on a regular basis.

5. Invest in Strong Product Leadership
The continuous and close collaboration between client and agency partners can at times feel chaotic in an Agile environment. Agile project teams are inherently self-organizing, so it can easily appear as though no one is in control or, more importantly, managing the project risk. This is not at all the case in practice. Traditional project management and leadership tasks are in fact distributed across three roles: the Scrum Master, Product Owner, and Client Product Leads. Combined, this de facto leadership group ensures that the solution is being successfully delivered against the Product Vision and that risk is appropriately monitored.

  • Agency Scrum Masters protect the team. Meredith often feels like an air traffic controller who helps the team navigate the daily challenges of a project without getting in the way of the team and their process. Agency Scrum Masters monitor for potential blockers and team progress, while also anticipating their needs on a daily basis. That’s right, daily! Nothing can slip past a good Scrum Master’s radar. Because of this close relationship with the team, Scrum Masters can bring awareness to productivity challenges and potential risks to the project at the team level.
  • Agency Product Owners (POs) protect the Product Vision. Tobi expertly translates the Product Vision at multiple altitudes to ensure that the client and product team remain on point. This is achieved by translating stakeholder requests, defining appropriate goals, and prioritizing the roadmap to ensure a focused delivery of the Product Vision. Moreover, the PO manages the continuous feedback loop informed by internal stakeholders, external stakeholders, and users. A strong PO can gracefully juggle between the needs of the team, users, product, and client with equal attention, never wavering from the beacon that is the Product Vision.
  • Client Product Leads protect the business objective. The client lead completes the trifecta of Agile leadership. A strong client lead needs to be empowered to make decisions in service of the Product Vision and be able to act without obstruction.Successful client leads are empowered by their organization to make on-the-spot product decisions, prioritize without extraneous approvals, and have symbiotic relationships with agency Product Owners. Confidence and trust is key. The second client leads defer to “others” (specifically upper management) in order to make product-related decisions, the leadership team is instantly weakened. Thus, strong client leads are enabled by their own companies, engaged with the agency team, and equally invested in reaching the Product Vision as the agency-side PO.

As the service-based model becomes a thing of the past, we encourage those in our industry to embrace the possibilities of a solution-based approach. If agencies and clients alike are willing to commit to these key tenets of Agile agency product team success, their partnerships will be uniquely poised to build innovative digital solutions that solve client’s business problems and meet customer’s needs.

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Meredith Neistadt, Associate Director, Project Management
Meredith brings efficiency, unrivaled attention to detail, and a unique ability to understand clients’ business goals to each project that she manages. At VSA, Meredith has worked as a Scrum Master on several Agile teams for IBM and as a project manager on global B2B accounts in the financial services, healthcare, and technology sectors. She is a specialist in the planning and execution of end-to-end solutions, including brand strategy and identity, digital communications, and advertising campaigns. Meredith is a certified Scrum Master and PMP, with a Bachelors of Arts in Art History and Biochemistry from Bowdoin College and a Master of Architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Contact Meredith at mneistadt@vsapartners.com.

Tobi DeVito, Director Product Management
Tobi’s career has spanned a variety of disciplines and industries—from leading digital product teams for Fortune 100 clients and executing multi-million dollar media campaigns for leading e-comm retailers, to building CRM databases for national non-profits. At VSA, Tobi delivers bleeding-edge digital experiences for many of our enterprise clients, including IBM. Through her broad experience, Tobi has developed the critical skill of nurturing, motivating and empowering teams. In unifying internal and external stakeholders with clearly defined product vision, requirements and purpose, her teams have consistently delivered differentiated, user-centered products across varied platforms, services and tech stacks. Tobi is a Certified Scrum Product Owner and holds a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy from University of Puget Sound and a Master’s degree in Public Administration from New York University. Tobi can be reached at tdevito@vsapartners.com.