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Managing your creative service providers

by Jack Shepherd
September 9th, 2015

Digital Design Director

Yes, you still need to manage your outsourced marketing service providers. Here’s why

In an effort to cut costs, the outsourcing of marketing and creative service providers has become a go-to strategy for organizations both large and small in recent years.

Why build your own marketing team when you can simply hire an outsourced firm to handle tasks—everything from graphic design and website development, to public relations and analytics—on your behalf? It’s just smart business strategy. (Full disclosure: Shockwave and Jackson Wynne essentially exist because companies have embraced this approach, so we’re more than a little biased in favour of outsourcing. But I digress)

The outsourcing strategy, however, comes with challenges.

There are many CEOs who assume that once a marketing responsibility has been outsourced, the initiative will be developed, deployed and, presto—instant marketing success. All that’s left is to simply sit back, serve the stream of new clients pouring through their real or virtual doors, and pay out the service provider. No fuss, no muss.
In reality, it never works that way.

A tough situation

Let me give you an example. A couple of years ago we worked with a global service provider, delivering high-level marketing consulting and management services to support their existing marketing department. Although we weren’t responsible for managing the outsourced agency that handled graphic design on the client’s behalf, we watched from afar as a tough situation snowballed into a disastrous one.

The trouble began when the design firm received little creative direction at the start of the relationship and quickly discovered that key management personnel—from whom they needed approvals—were almost always unavailable. Presenting work at stages during the months-long engagement was impossible. The engagement quickly turned sour when the agency delivered what they thought was a final product, work the client wholeheartedly rejected as being off-brand and off-message. The agency reminded the client that they had tried to engage various managers, but couldn’t.

At that point it didn’t matter. The client spent thousands of dollars on creative they didn’t love, but were forced to use due to their significant investment.

Some important lessons

All parties involved in that situation could have worked more effectively to ensure a strong outcome from the project. The agency could have taken additional steps to open lines of communication with the client, for example.

But, ultimately, clients need to manage their service providers to ensure a high-value engagement. Exactly how to do that depends on the organization and their structure, of course, but there are a few simple rules to follow to make sure your outsourced marketing relationships run as smoothly as possible:

Define objectives—One of the major challenges companies have at the very start of an outsourcing arrangement is a lack of clarity around their marketing objectives, and in turn, the expectation of the service provider. Before engaging a firm to outsource a marketing responsibility, determine what you need to achieve, how you want to do it and what a positive outcome will look like over the longer term.

Set a budget—Knowing how much you can spend on a marketing campaign or initiative is a first step in determining the kind of outsourced service provider you can engage. I’ll delve more into the topic in a later post, but remember that your end results will generally be a reflection of the initial and ongoing investment. Having a budget (even a rough one) in mind will help you narrow a list of potential service providers—which could include freelancers, a boutique firm or possibly even a national agency if your organization has deep pockets.

Identify key point people—Any experienced service provider will ask for you to identify one or two main internal point people to contact for ongoing questions and approvals. Without those contacts, they’re essentially working in limbo. Make sure that whoever you do appoint to manage the project or relationship has the time available to monitor the service provider’s progress and address any concerns they might have. These point people should also be prepared to provide the service provider with a creative brief, as well as background training or an overview of your organization’s employee culture, brand considerations and business operations to ensure the work they deliver is on-brand and on-message.

Stay in touch—Don’t assume that one or two meetings will be sufficient to manage an outsourced marketing relationship. Insist on semi-monthly calls or meetings with the service provider to assess their progress and answer questions. The call or meeting might only last for 10 minutes, but it’s a reminder that you’re serious about the project and expect results, while giving the provider an opportunity to present work, seek approvals and ask for clarifications.

Set regular milestones—Another important consideration to avoid project cost over-runs or delivery delays is to set short-term milestones for the service provider to achieve. These could be monthly or quarterly (depending on the nature of the engagement) and could even be tied to payment. This tactic will not only help you assess progress, but also helps keep the service provider motivated. From their perspective, it’s easy to drift and become lackadaisical about a project when even the client seems disengaged and indifferent about its outcome.

Until next time.

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