Healthy brand and agency collaboration requires regular check-ins | Insights

How relationship retrospectives deliver stronger, longer-lasting collaborations with your agency

November 2021


  • Jeremy Burrows, CEO
  • Kirby Shulman, Director of Projects
  • James Chutter, Digital Strategist

Some of the most challenging moments in the relationship between your brand and an agency arrive early. First, you spend a lot of time looking around to evaluate whether a new agency is right for your brand. (And, if this is you, hi!) Then, you have to onboard a new partner, which takes time as you both learn how to work together.

Finally, the fun part begins as you work with your agency partner to resolve your brand’s problems. Given the importance of that goal, you need to work with a creative partner who is invested in doing all they can to sustain that partnership. For the most productive agency-client collaboration, relationship retrospectives are among the keys to a successful and sustainable partnership.

The idea is similar in spirit to project retrospectives, which look for areas of improvement after any campaign. However, relationship retrospectives are more proactive. Instead of waiting until something has gone wrong, the right agency will seek your feedback on a consistent basis. Relationship retrospectives will keep your partnership—and its creative results—running at their best.

Relationship retrospectives are structured, facilitated, and focused

Years go, relationship-building with an agency probably looked more like “Mad Men." Everyone went out to a big dinner and then experienced whatever team-building results from getting blackout drunk together. Thankfully, these are more sensible times.

Relationship retrospectives are a crucial tool to preserving and enhancing the quality of your brand’s working relationship with its agency. But they require more than your agency firing off an email with a subject line like, “Checking in.”

Larger agencies may have built-in processes for evaluating their dynamic with clients, but there’s no substitute for direct communication. At We The Collective, we schedule quarterly relationship retrospectives that provide a consistent forum to examine and improve collaboration.

Neutrality is critical to keeping a retrospective moving forward

To keep the conversation engaged and productive, your agency should use a facilitator who has some knowledge of the business, but is impartial. Typically, we use someone from our agency trained in facilitation that isn’t involved in the day-to-day of the collaboration. Sometimes, at more corporate firms, they may engage a professional mediator who can facilitate a retrospective on any topic.

With a facilitator in place, your agency can ensure everyone is comfortable expressing themselves and identifying issues to improve. The structure of these meetings may resemble counseling sessions, but relationship retrospectives aren’t solely intended to fix something that’s broken. The idea is for everyone to recognize areas of improvement before they cause problems.

Communication guidelines are key to successful relationship retrospectives

When both sides of an engagement are free to talk about their experience, you can uncover the details to help the creative process run more smoothly. As a result, you identify potential issues before they can develop.

Fortunately, we haven’t had to navigate deeper interpersonal issues such as personality conflicts. For us, table stakes are that we all like each other. But we all work a little bit differently, and relationship retrospectives provide a chance to be aware of everyone’s expectations. Like any relationship, it’s simply a good idea to check in.

We commit an hour of our time every quarter to bring people together with the hopes of making everyone’s lives a bit easier. Relationship retrospectives focus on the process, not the people. By maintaining focus on how to improve how we work together, you keep the focus off individuals. And clear communication is kind communication when it comes to relationship retrospectives. After all, the meeting concerns a business relationship. It’s never personal.

Relationship retrospectives lead to stronger creative down the road

To get the kind of work that will make a difference for your brand, your relationship with an agency must be built on trust. Identifying and discussing even the practical process details of how we work together allows creative ideas to flow more freely.

For example, imagine the first brainstorming session with your agency introduces an assortment of roadblocks. One idea can’t be pursued because legal would never approve it, or another approach isn’t viable because the right files aren’t available. A relationship retrospective will allow room to propose new processes like leaving more time for legal review or finding the source for assets. Otherwise, your agency may feel censored before pursuing some viable creative ideas in the future.

You can only discover the right campaign for your brand if you find workarounds for process points that lead to creative limitations. Plus, if someone missed a detail that lead to an unreasonable deadline, you need a forum to revisit what went wrong.

In a healthy agency-client relationship, neither party should be walking on eggshells because you didn't put in the work to fix the issue. The better both sides get to know and trust one another, the more likely your agency will feel empowered to try unconventional solutions to your brand’s problems. And, ultimately, the work grows that much stronger.

Relationship retrospectives save time and money for your brand

Misunderstandings or easy-to-resolve roadblocks in your agency’s workflow take time to work around — and that’s time that could be spent helping your brand. To see the most return on an investment when hiring an outside agency, you need as much focus as possible dedicated to resolving creative challenges rather than procedural issues.

But just as importantly, tending to your relationship with an agency contributes to that partnership’s lifespan. At the end of our relationship retrospectives, everyone who works on your brand comes out of the process recharged. In a short amount of time, we talk about actionable items that will improve how we work together. Then, there’s no dry, drawn-out promise to follow-up on some detail later. We identify issues, and then they’re quickly resolved.

At We The Collective, we view our clients as partners, and those relationships only grow stronger with time. Investing in continuous upkeep of that partnership through relationship retrospectives doesn’t just deliver better work. It also spares your brand from investing the time and energy of onboarding a new agency that doesn't share your idea of healthy collaboration. If this sounds like the kind of creative partnership that would serve your brand, we should talk.