Can Agencies and Startups Get Along: secrets of the agency-startup relationship

by Patrick Woods on

Agencies for Startups

Big agencies working on national clients with massive budgets. Doesn't sound like an ideal partner for a scrappy early-stage startup, does it? Definitely not on the surface.

But as it turns out, startups and agencies do have a lot in common. They're both about solving problems and bringing big ideas to life. Some of the smartest people I know work for a startup or an agency. They're generally working on interesting things.

On one level, the two seem like natural collaborators, but it's rare to find an agency that knows how to work with startups, or founders who understand how to even conceptualize agency world. What gives?

I've come to characterize the relationship between both groups as two individuals standing back-to-back, facing opposite directions. In that configuration, the two are near to one another, indeed, within arm's length. But while they're close in proximity, their outlooks are totally different. They share the affinity for big ideas and solving crazy problems, but they apply themselves to different ends.

In my experience, though, it's possible for both groups to realign, to share a common purpose, and to apply their strengthens in ways that benefit the startup as well as their agency partner.

What follows are some lessons learned.

For transparency's sake

I hope this article doesn't come across as overly self-promotional. If I use lots of examples from our our work at archer>malmo, it's simply because we've been intentional about working with startups for the past three years. We've worked with founders on the west coast and in the southeast. Some have raised their A round, others have been recent accelerator grads. We've done a good deal of brand work, campaign development, and all sorts of other executions.

So, if I talk about our experiences a lot, it's because, well, I've experienced them. But I am confident that the lessons learned here are widely applicable to all sorts of startups and agencies.

Reasons agencies aren't good at startups:

Agencies have been around for a long time, and their ways of thinking and working tend to become ingrained. Here are a few hurdles I've seen stand in the way of fruitful agency-startup relationships.

different paradigms of:

Tips for making it work

There are clearly challenges for building working relationships between agencies and startups. But it actually is possible to make it happen. And it can be really good.

relationship

Our most fruitful startup relationships have begun as friendships. This sounds incredibly sappy, I realize, but it's true. Investing in the relationship gives both sides time to feel-out the chemistry and fit, understand how both groups think and work, and ultimately, establish trust.

trust

As with any relationship, the startup-agency engagement has to begin here. Startups needs to get the attention their accounts deserve, and their teams need to feel comfortable that will be the case.

communication

By their nature, startups make decisions quickly, and begin acting on those decisions immediately. When things are moving fast, it's crucial that both sides commit to an ongoing dialogue. That includes progress updates from the agency side, as well as timely input and feedback from the startup. The startup should also be transparent about upcoming developments that might affect scope, budget, or timeline.

knowing what you're good at

Every agency has a core set of skills that are particularly relevant to startups. We happen to be a full-service shop, meaning we have creative, planning, media, PR, digital, and broadcast all under one roof. But are all of those functional areas relevant to startups? Maybe, maybe not. But we've found we're particularly good at brand development and campaign development. If the scope falls outside of those areas, we can provide value to be sure, but we're transparent about what we've found to be our core capabilities for early-stage startups.

In addition to these general tips, there are several pieces of advice for both startups and agencies.

Startups should:

Agencies should:

Everybody should: keep the big idea front and center

Despite the technological upheavals in tech in the last couple of decades, the strength of a good agency is this: they're really good at tapping the power of lots of smart, creative, connected people. The culture of the agency is one of big, amazing ideas. Of uncompromising dedication to truth and to producing great work.

As it turns out, startups are also relentlessly pursuing a big idea. The company is just the tangible manifestation of the founders' and the team's vision for the world. They'll stop at nothing to bring it to life.

And this is where the agency-startup possibilities really get interesting: unreasonable founders paired with an experienced creative team that's hard-wired to think big.

Hopefully this brief exploration of the agency-startup relationship is helpful to founders and agency folks everywhere. If you have questions or comments, I'd love to hear your thoughts. Shoot me a tweet @patrickjwoods.

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