It has become a trope of business nowadays that collaboration is good, it makes things better. And it’s true – in an increasingly complex world, we need to work together to deliver results.
But in my experience, the C word is misused, abused and misunderstood. So here are the five rules of "collaboration" I have learned from agency life.
Collaboration doesn’t mean "let the agencies sort it out". Agency partners are not going to spontaneously selforganise without clear direction from clients as to what each agency’s role is. The worst clients think they’re there to buy a ticket and watch the match; the best clients understand they’re the manager of the team and have to decide the formation.
Collaboration cannot live with competition. When there is ambiguity about who defines the strategy and the idea, or an explicit incentive that someone’s idea will "win", then collaboration dies. It’s natural for humans to desire control and independence, and to assume that if you define the idea, you will have greater power and control.
If your agencies are behaving like this, it’s usually because you haven’t effectively defined the terms of engagement and only occasionally because your agencies are behaving badly.
Collaboration is best friends with responsibility. The best collaboration processes have a rhythm of sharing and creation. People come together to share progress, get others’ views on their work, but then it’s their responsibility to go away and create or recreate.
The worst collaboration processes have everyone doubling up, working in areas where they lack expertise and spending more time doing others’ jobs badly than doing their job well. It should be more jigsaw puzzle, less Jackson Pollock.
Collaboration requires sacrifice. Sometimes your idea, brilliant though it may be, doesn’t fit the whole. So it has to go. Bad multi-agency collaboration produces lots of quite different ideas, united by visual identity to pretend they’re the same.
Great collaborators understand that if something doesn’t fit the full picture, it’s not helping – and presenting it to the client "just to see what they think" is a cop-out.
Collaboration creates conflict, but it’s good conflict. If you’re not in conflict with one another at least some of the time, then you’re not collaborating – you’re just talking in the same room.
Good conflict involves robust conversations about what’s on strategy and what isn’t. When it’s not there, it’s either a group that doesn’t trust each other enough or a brand that has no strategy. Yes, collaboration is good, but it’s hard.
So next time marketers moan that their agencies aren’t collaborating, they should take a long hard look in the mirror first. Then ask their agencies to do the same.
Craig Mawdsley is joint chief strategy officer at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO