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Creative Partnerships

When trust exists, people are more honest and creativity and innovation spark much more easily.

No matter how nimble, innovative, or globally networked your organization or business is, it will run smack into the limits of its capabilities just by virtue of operating in today’s dynamic world. To push through these limits, you need to tap into a nearly bottomless force of adaptability known as symbiosis.

Rafe Sagarin, Harvard Business Review

There are four models of symbiosis within the business realm, I want to talk about Coalition based symbiosis here: where two companies work together to create better value for customers. A significant amount of Paragon’s experience as a creative agency centers around our ability to serve as a symbiotic, adjunct resource for the internal creative teams of our larger corporate clients. It’s a role we relish because there is a level of satisfaction that comes when we work with a brand over a long period of time. We get to be a part of their evolution, we gain invaluable institutional knowledge, and having a deep understanding of the intricacies involved makes it possible to come up new, fresh and creative ways to develop and deliver content.

We don’t take it for granted that clients place an enormous amount of trust in us when they allow us to collaborate closely with them. We’ve worked hard to earn that trust (I’ll talk about this a bit more later). Happily it enables us to add a few important things to our clients’ teams…

  • R&D – The great thing is that our clients get the perk of paying for only a portion of this. With their own employees, 100% of R&D time is on the clock (if there is any time for it, and often there is not) but working with us they benefit from the sum total of all the research and new techniques we develop as we work across a spectrum of projects for many clients.
  • Capacity – This is an obvious one, but having more resources available like a faucet you can turn on and off can be a lifesaver when a team is under the gun to deliver results. This requires a close relationship because our clients have to know we’ll be there and that can deliver with the same level of consistency they’d expect from a staffer that sits in the same room.
  • Brainstorming Power – This is one of my favorite things we do for clients. With a trusted creative partner you should be able to throw them into any creative discussion for as much or as little time as you need. We get to do this on projects all the time. Some projects where we aren’t even responsible for any deliverables. Our role is to simply add to the idea pile, then help filter and refine the top contenders. Sometimes once that’s done, we simply step away and let our clients’ internal teams do the rest.
  • Energy – This might seem a bit hokey but stick with me on this. When a team is burned out, even the most interesting projects can be overwhelming, and keeping everyone motivated can be hard. Simply opening the conversation to more creatives can completely reinvigorate things. We’ve seen this first hand on a number of occasions where we’ve jumped in midstream to help get a project completed. I think of it as a sort of energy transplant, and I know it works for clients because it’s a technique we use internally.

All of that is nice when a great relationship exists between a creative agency and the client’s internal team, but it does take some time and effort on everyone’s part to grow that relationship. Here’s some thoughts on how to establish symbiotic parternerships.

When you’re the client….

Working with an external resource as part of your team does have the potential to go terribly wrong. I think everyone has experienced the disappointment when a contractor underperforms, or worse, the stress when things go horribly off the rails. No-one wants this.

This is the reason you can’t really enjoy the true benefits of a close creative partnership unless some groundwork is laid and trust is built. When trust exists, people are more honest and creativity and innovation spark much more easily.

So if you’re the client and you’re looking for a creative collaborator be sure to:

  • Ask questions. Find out how successful they are at their work, but also at relationships with other clients. Ask how long their oldest active client relationships are, how they work with those clients and how the relationships evolved over time.
  • Start small. Test the waters to see what they’re capable of, not just in terms of skills but also communication, attitude, process and meeting deadlines.
  • Ask for opinions along the way. Be open to their feedback, seek input (but have your own opinions) and when necessary adapt. This is also an opportunity for you to learn.
  • Measure results. Pay attention to whether they deliver what they promised. Was it on time? How good is the work? How was the experience?
  • Measure their emotional investment. This can seem like an intangible but you should ask yourself how much they cared about your goals, your deadline and your budget.
  • Debrief at the end. Assuming all goes well, it’s still important to look for any opportunities to refine the process of working together.


When you’re the creative partner….

You need to make sure you’re ready for a long term creative partnership. If you’re comfortable with the level of accountability required to collaborate with in-house teams then here are a few of the things you should do.

  • Create detailed project scopes and estimates based on a thorough understanding of the work involved. Do your own due diligence even when the client provides a brief and scope, to make sure you catch anything they might have missed. No-one likes expensive surprises.
  • Have an agreement in place that clearly states how deliverables and assets should be handled. This is both for you and the client. If the client has already paid you for the work, don’t charge them extra for agreed-upon assets. I’ve heard rumours of such things and I don’t get it. No-one likes to be held hostage and that’s a sure-fire way to burn down a relationship. By the same token, make sure your clients understand upfront when you expect payment and how this affects the release of assets. This is not something to figure out after the project is done. Clarity is everyone’s friend.
  • Be fair. I’m not saying you should give your time away for free, but if you see areas where a different approach might save your client some money while still yielding results, suggest it. Don’t be greedy and short sighted. You might make a bit less on the current project, but long term you’ll get more work.
  • Ask questions, accept correction. You will never know as much about your client’s business as they do, but it is your job to understand as much of it as possible in order to deliver great work. Be OK with being wrong sometimes. Don’t get all huffy if a client doesn’t like your first ideas. Instead focus on how to course-correct to get it right the next time. Ask questions. Listen. Adapt
  • Leverage your network where appropriate. During the course of a project you may realize that you can utilize your own contacts and relationships, to help improve the final result and save your client money. Look for these types of opportunities, but keep in mind that you’re accountable for the final result. So DO suggest a different printer if your relationship with them means you can get your client a better rate for the same product, but DON’T pawn off an important deliverable on a freelancer you’re testing out.

There are many more things you can do to provide value to your clients and grow those relationships, but I think these basics are particularly important.

If you plan on being a key resource for your clients over the long term, your perspective about your role in the relationship needs to shift from being about how much money you can make off of them to how you can help them make and save money. The same stresses that apply to their jobs will be a part of your relationship, and in the end your role is to help the team win.

The goal here is a positive sum gain for everyone involved, to be working with, rather than for. Sagarin concludes that the most amazing thing about symbiosis is that the outcome can’t ever be predicted just by looking at the two entities separately. This is what we have found – that it has taken our partnerships to a much more satisfying and creative space.


Susan Isaacs

Susan’s a multitask-er who prides herself on the vast number of things (read: loose papers and coffee cups) on her desk at any one time, and yet she still manages to keep an eye on all the moving parts at Paragon.