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Working with External Vendors

Insights  //   //  By Christopher Davies

The article below originally appeared in Leadership Vol. 1 – Best Practices and Processes For In-House Creative Leaders published by In-Source.

I’m a double agent in the marketing and design world. For 13 years, I was the in-house creative director for a major financial services group. Then I jumped over the wall and opened my own agency. For the past 15 years, I’ve been the lead dog at my company, Dog and Pony Studios. But I’m only a stone’s throw from my old in-house neighbourhood: almost all of our work involves partnering with creative directors of in-house marketing groups. Having worked both sides, I have a clear picture of the professional practices that lead to lasting, productive relationships, and the mistakes and oversights that derail projects at the get go.

As a vendor, I see how the work we produce amplifies our clients’ brands – and the reputation of the creatives in charge of them. But back when I worked in-house, I had a love/hate relationship with agencies. If we had to farm a project out, I would worry that I’d look like I wasn’t pulling my weight, or failing to deliver through my in-house team. I worried my team would be seen as incapable, or even worse, unneeded. Moreover, it seemed that vendors had a way of working on the more exciting projects whereas we were tasked to produce a never-ending pile of everyday things. (To be fair, we had a lot of exciting projects too, but the high pile of the everyday items always made them seem few and far between.) On top of it all, I was frequently cast in the role of the vendor’s sherpa, leading some outside creative director over mountains of paperwork and processes while dodging predatory stakeholders. If not for me, they would have been lost (and likely have starved to death) – but I felt I could never take credit for the work produced.

Still, I recognized that vendors were an invaluable lifeline to delivering complex projects (or ones that needed to appear overnight). They augmented our team with specific skills that weren’t part of our day-to-day work and brought fresh perspectives and approaches to our brand. The best vendors were partners who added a lot of value, while making my job easier.

Here are my thoughts on facilitating great partnerships with outside agencies so you and the brand you represent can get the most out of working with external vendors.

Why outsourcing is empowerment, not defeat

The first thing to understand is what outsourcing can do for you.

Outsourcing can empower you deliver more, faster (and better) and to make a highly visible best-use of your budget (no matter how modest, you have a budget and you need to show value for it). Vendors are an extension of your team, not a replacement. Remember: all businesses hire contractors across all areas of practice – so why not yours?

At the most basic level, outsourcing can give you access to specialized skills, such as back-end coding, mobile web development, SEO or social media management, app development, custom illustration, video production and more. Many of these skills aren’t needed day-to-day, so of course it’s not part of the in-house capability. But when you get a call from the CFO who thought they’d Google the firm – and you came up on page five – you need an SEO specialist, pronto. Enter vendor.

Beyond these specialized skills, vendors provide a fresh, experienced perspective on your brand. Perhaps you need to redevelop the brand voice by coordinating your key differentiators across your tagline, elevator speeches and other copy points. Expressing the values of a brand is difficult when many of those values are part of what you do everyday as an employee. You’re just too close to see it clearly and you need new eyes. Vendors can see the trees rather than the forest (or, the forest if all you see are trees).

Establish who is going to manage the project

There’s no hard and fast rule about who should be the project manager. It’s entirely dependent on the nature of the project. That said, there can be only one project manager: you, or the vendor. Ask yourself: do you have processes and experience with this kind of assignment to manage it properly, or is it better suited to the vendor? If you’re a Creative Suite type, and the project is about PHP coding, perhaps you should let them hold the reins.

No matter who manages the project, however, a clear project plan needs to be in place. It doesn’t have to be complex, just clear. Define who is doing what activity, who is providing the content, who is editing it, etc. Each team’s contact information should be shared to allow quick access to key players and to keep everyone in the loop. With added players comes added potential for miscommunication. Setting up the project in a simple but powerful tool like Basecamp can help to keep track of all communications and provide a digital paper trail should aspects of the project start to go sideways.

Educate each other on workflow

Your vendor needs to understand the usual workflow for projects. If your colleagues (and more importantly, bosses) are used to a certain cadence, now is not the time to change their expectations. Tell your vendor where the usual touchpoints are for sign-off (discovery/research, outlines, wireframes, scripts, full drafts, etc.). Of particular importance is the workflow expectations for the gorilla stakeholders, such as senior executive “final review” for sign-off (which is typically their first review), or review by legal and compliance. The workflow and process of handling input and direction from these stakeholders is critical to a project’s success, since their input can often come in at the 11th hour, and has the potential to derail months of hard work.

With all this information in hand, your vendor can then integrate their best practices to your workflow to keep things moving smoothly on the inside, without sacrificing the methods that have made them successful and skilled in the great big marketing world outside.

Establish where you stop, and they begin

Even with roles and responsibilities defined, you still need to get granular in areas that may have grey zones. The more sharp lines you can draw, the fewer friction points that will materialize during the project. Think about where the hand-off point will be for things like creative latitude for brand standards, fact checking and editing copy; who is responsible for securing domain names or hosting; where you usually license stock art (do you have a library they should use? is the vendor sourcing images? royalty-free, or rights-managed?), and more.

Share the office politics (that matter)

There’s a lot to be said for the off-the-record lunch. Of course you need to keep some things close to the chest, but it’s in everyone’s best interest for you to flag personalities or informal channels that will influence the outcome of the project. The goal is efficiency. You don’t want your vendor wasting time navigating office politics or mediating long-standing internal disputes. Let your vendor know who you report to and don’t use them to even scores.

Discuss budget up front

Vendors want to make a good margin on the work. You want to protect your budget. Making these two goals meet can be tricky. How do you approach it? Start by calculating how long your project would take you and your team (if the task is within your capabilities). The calculation will give you a ballpark on costs for comparison purpose. Ask your vendor for a realistic price, given the scope, timeline and other factors (such as politics) that may influence edit cycles and delivery. Don’t squeeze your vendor down in price to save pennies, but don’t let allow a vendor to take advantage of budget because the timelines are tight, or because your brand is a Fortune 500 company. Be frank and open. It’s best to get the financials sorted out quickly, up front and in detail.

Sort out the back office

You’re a creative director, not a finance or procurement officer. Nonetheless, you need to get your vendor locked and loaded with your firm before the project begins. It’s a walled garden – and you’re the one on the inside. If you haven’t been through the purchasing process, quickly sort out how to contract your vendor, get a purchase order issued, and learn accounts payable processes and timelines. Then you can get on to the business of developing creative without the back office popping up and stealing focus.

The vendor’s job is to make you look good

Your company has entrusted you to spend its money, deliver a product on time, and to ensure your brand is at its very best. No pressure, right? Well, no pressure for you. It’s the vendor who is responsible for delivering on time, on budget and on brand. Ensure your vendor understands that anything less will damage or end their relationship with your firm no matter how much you may like them. And it’ll damage your own reputation too if they deliver over budget, late or an underwhelming product. Their job is to ensure this project isn’t a lose-lose for themselves and for you.

Your job is to make them look good

If you follow the advice given here, you will have done your job to give your vendor everything they need to succeed and look like stars. When the project closes, don’t forget to give credit where credit is due. Recognize your vendor as the engine behind the brilliant product, and give yourself credit as the driver. The recognition will set the bar of expectation high for any future work with your vendor – and it gives them credibility amongst your colleagues, which will make it easier to get sign-off when you wish to use them again in the future.

PS: Don’t forget to establish all the miscellaneous rules of engagement

Outside of these major sweeps, there are other items you’ll need to consider, such as:

  • Non-disclosure agreements: do you need to protect your firm’s information?
  • Portfolio and case studies: can your vendor showcase the product, or are they to be a ghost designer?
  • If you can openly discuss your partnership, how can you mutually use social media to amplify the reach of the work – and your business in the process?
  • Copyright: is it clear who owns the product?
  • Reuse of code: if the project is digital, can your vendor use it in the future, or is this code proprietary to your firm?
  • Source file turnover: do you want the files, and if so, what formats and software versions do you need?
  • Other random practical things that can derail a project at a critical time, such as IT blocking the use of Dropbox, or other issues that can stop delivery when the clock is ticking.

These are a few examples that come to mind. I’m sure you have some of your own.

Vendors are Partners

I opened this saying I was a double agent in the marketing and design world, but that’s a bit of a misnomer because it implies sides, when really, there are none. Everyone is one the same side, and the goal is to deliver excellence.

Creativity isn’t produced in a vacuum. So take advantage of the oxygen an outside agency can breathe into your brand. Make use of their expertise. Recognize the value they can add to your job. Give them the tools they need to put their best work forward. Empower them to take ownership of the project and fully engage their creative and critical faculties.

Above all, treat them as partners. It’s a simple practice that costs nothing but has big returns. Because – as we all know – in business, relationships are everything.