9 tips for successful collaboration between in-house design teams and agencies

Paul Woodvine, Managing Creative Director & Partner
Vibrant superhero illustration that represents the power of two sides working together in collaboration

Paul Woodvine, Managing Creative Director & Partner

More and more, brands are building in-house design teams. But I’m not here to tell you that this is the end of design agencies. It’s simply time to evolve and find new, more effective ways of working together. And that poses quite an exciting opportunity for both sides.

And having been on both sides of that table – as Global Design Director at PepsiCo and now as Partner & Managing Creative Director of Vault49’s London studio – here are my 9 top tips for how in-house teams and agencies should challenge the traditional agency-client relationship model and create a collaborative partnership that sees everyone succeed.

For in-house design teams

1) Complementary skillsets

In-house teams tend to be smaller than their agencies think they are, and often have to work across multiple brands, initiatives and markets. As an in-house team, you can’t possibly be expected to tackle every single brief – and execute it – yourself. I’ve written about what brands should look for in a design agency partner before, and I want to reiterate how crucial it is to choose an agency with people that have skillsets to complement what you already have in-house, and to fill in any gaps.

Think broad. Consider how your agency approaches brand and creative strategy as well as the illustration and typography skills they bring to the table. Their conceptual thinking as well as their ability to execute rollouts. What do you really need from them? As a client, my top priority was to partner with agencies that could guide and work with me and my team on the holistic 360 brand experience, rather than specialist agencies that could only work on one type of execution. That’s where I found the most value, and where my agencies had the most impact.

2) An extension of your team

Agencies are experts at what they do, that’s why you choose to collaborate with them. So utilize their expertise, but think of them as an extension of your team rather than as a supplier. Put yourselves on a level playing field from the outset and play to each of your strengths; their ability to spot trends and bring fresh perspectives from the wider world, your deep knowledge of your brand and the business challenges you face. Make sure you go on the journey together, right from the initial brief (which we have some advice on here) to sharing the results post-launch, and maintain a team-led approach every step of the way.

3) Manage internal politics

As an internal design team, you can really push the limits of what your brand can achieve, and you are in the privileged position of being able to challenge marketers and internal stakeholders from the point of the creative brief onwards. Identify where you can take on that responsibility and free up your agency from internal politics so they can focus on the creative. But don’t forget to elevate their voices and allow them a seat at the table for the right conversations; there are huge benefits for agencies to gain insights and feedback first-hand to help shape the project.

For agencies

4) Leave your ego at the door

Many respected agencies have a reputation for doing great work, but I’ve often found that it comes with an ego attached, and this ego tends to be connected to wanting to take control. If an agency tries to take control then the collaborative partnership breaks down, which leads me nicely onto…

5) Client vs Collaborator

A lot of agencies still see in-house design teams as clients rather than collaborators. This immediately put a barrier up and creates an “us vs. them” situation that is far from collaborative. Remember: people working in internal design teams are creatives too, and they bring a unique combination of creative and strategic thinking, project management and brand knowledge. Involve them in your creative process and you’ll inspire one another to get to the best solutions, together.

6) Be the constant

We all know that consistency is key for brands, wherever they show up in the world. But when we look at internal teams, in my experience people tend to move around quite a lot, and that thread of consistency can become an issue quite quickly. Agencies, on the other hand, often work with a brand for years. They get to know it inside and out. As an agency partner, you can be that thread. Use your brand knowledge to your advantage and help make transitions within internal teams smooth for everyone involved.

For everyone

7) Love each other

OK so “love” is maybe too strong a word, but if you’re going in the trenches together, you need to get on. For me, this means building a team with the right mix of personalities and creating a culture where you all enjoy working together, both in-house and agency side.

8) Be open, honest and transparent

True collaboration will only work if you trust one another, and trust is built on openness, honesty and transparency. Set clear boundaries and expectations, define roles and responsibilities, and be honest with one another. Have frank conversations about what’s working and what’s not working, about when to push back and fight for something, but also when to move on. Sometimes it might feel like a difficult conversation to have, but it will ultimately lead to better creative work and a stronger, more resilient relationship.

9) Celebrate the good times

After all the hard work is done, you should always make time to celebrate. It could be something as small as a quick email to show your appreciation for delivering a great project, it might be organizing a get-together at the end of a successful year working together or attending an industry awards ceremony. Celebrate the wins, big and small, and all that you have achieved together to set yourself up to start it all over again on a high note.

Creating a truly collaborative partnership

I have experienced the client-side pressures and understand what a task it can be to get projects over the line when leading an in-house design team, and I have also felt the frustrations of client feedback and everything else that comes with being on the agency side of the relationship.

What we have to continue reminding ourselves is that both sides are working towards the same goal – to do what’s right for the brand and the consumer. If we approach every project with that mindset, whether we are working for a brand or with a brand, then we can create a truly collaborative partnership where everyone succeeds. And who doesn’t want that?

Paul Woodvine, Managing Creative Director & Partner