(Originally published on CMO.com, December 09, 2013)

It seems these days a lot of brand-side marketing managers are asking the same two questions about their agency relationships:

  1. Why can’t my agency move faster?
  2. Why can’t they be better coordinated and integrated?

The growing speed and complexity of today’s marketing channels means the ability to integrate and coordinate across these channels is key to marketing success.  And according to many on the brand side, agencies can’t keep up: they either get it right but take too long, or go fast and get it wrong.

As a result, the marketer’s team spends a lot of time leading the integration and coordination function – yes, the one that agencies are supposed to provide.  In one recent conversation, a marketing manager remarked to us: “Don’t they [the people at the agency] ever talk to each other?  Why am I the one who has to make sure that all the pieces fit together?”

The core of this problem is how distant the rest of the agency’s team can seem to the marketer.  We’ve nicknamed it “Agency Detachment Syndrome” or ADS.

Agencies don’t like ADS either.  We spoke with an account person recently who was living the pain of Chronic Degenerative ADS.  She told us she was so distant from the client and the work, that over the two years assigned to the account she had never met the client (“I know she’s a woman by her voice”) nor ever touched or used the client’s product.  And she deals with the client a lot more than her team does.

There is good news on the horizon for those suffering from ADS – some agencies are shifting to a team-centric “Agile” engagement model which brings agency teams (the people actually doing the work) closer to the brand’s marketing team, resulting in better integration, close coordination and faster delivery.

As a marketer, you’ll want to not only seek this out in your current (or next) agency, but also be able to sort out the “real” Agile agencies and also be ready to shift your model slightly to take advantage of this opportunity to work better and faster.  Understanding the “why” of ADS is a first step.

Size Matters: The Origins of Agency Detachment Syndrome

There has always been a tension in matching brand size to agency size – too small of an agency and they lack the breadth or capacity, and too large of an agency means the brand becomes a second-tier client with a continually shifting “B-team.”  Both of these situations are common causes of ADS.

Some marketers respond by managing a “constellation” of smaller agencies or building their own internal agency, but both of these mean that the marketer is still doing more of the coordination, rather than less.

The main reason why agencies get ADS is size.  While a ten-person agency can operate with its management functions as part-time roles, once an agency grows to twenty or so people, full-time management roles (such as account, project management, and discipline leadership) become the norm, and at that point the agency’s efficiency and velocity begins to decline.  By the time the agency is over 50 people, they are fully “infected” with ADS.  Almost every agency leader we speak with agrees that having grown larger meant getting slower, less nimble, farther from the client, and as a result, losing a bit of their “edge.”

It is not like agencies don’t care about this – ADS makes agencies less competitive. And competition abounds because starting up a new agency has never been easier than it is today.  Top talent often leaves one day and competes the next day against their former agency.  These small startups compete on cost, for sure, but they also boast the ability to partner well, working closely with their marketer clients on a day-to-day basis.  One agency executive recently lamented, “It seems some of our toughest competition is ‘two guys and a bong!’”  Bong or not, they don’t have ADS.

The Cure for Agency Detachment Syndrome?

It turns out that “behaving small” works miracles on ADS.  When larger agencies implement an “Agile” operations and delivery model they are able to re-organize into flatter, self-empowered teams of 8-20 cross-discipline roles – essentially creating multiple “Two Guys” agencies within.  This approach is often labeled “Agile” because of the methods involved, and also because these teams are more responsive to marketer’s needs, delivering results better, faster and leaving everyone much happier.

Marketers get the best of both worlds: “Two Guys” style of attention, focus and interaction, combined with the established agency’s depth, breadth and quality of talent, and its ability to scale and integrate larger, broader work.

Caveat Ostentator: Make Sure They Walk the “Agile” Walk

The word on Agile in agencies is out now, and as with any trending term many will make the claim, but fewer actually can deliver.  Marketers should be aware that Agile has many meanings.  The one that cures ADS is organizationally-based – that is, the whole organization uses the principles.  You can recognize this whole-agency Agile by looking for three key characteristics:

  1. You know the team – you speak and meet with them often.  The whole team, not the top of the team.
  2. You know who is doing what – because they are the ones talking with you about it.
  3. You know the status of the work, both good and bad – on a real-time basis, because you’re seeing it early and often.

There’s lots more to making the ADS-preventing Agile techniques work, but you can’t really fake the three outcomes listed above.  Why is this important? Done correctly, the whole team (including you) will gain efficiencies and move the work faster and with more clarity. However, if done incorrectly, this approach just adds more inefficient meetings and meaningless reports further aggravating your ADS.

Here are some other characteristics that will help “You know you’re doing Agile when…”

You Brief the Agency Team, not Agency Management

The “Team” in Agile is the people who actually build what you’re paying for: creatives, strategists, analysts, developers, etc.  When you tell your account person what you need, like in the “telephone game”, information quality drops as it is passed along.

The same is true for writing briefs, SOWs or change orders – nothing works better than people talking directly with each other.  An Agile agency team will want to work directly with you – no middlemen.  And chances are you’ll find it fun and empowering.  We had one marketer tell us, “They [the agency] feel like my right hand now.”

You’ll Meet Early and Often, but Need to Tolerate Incompleteness

Collaboration means working together frequently well before the deadline.  It means being a bit more of a teacher rather than a coordinator and integrator.  You would do that with the “Two Guys” in order to make sure that they “got it”, right?

Frequent (informal) reviews boost quality and Team engagement…and yours too.  Make sure the Team knows that you’re okay with looking at incomplete ideas and work.  If you have the right agency team, they’ll still try to crush it, but they’ll be grateful that you’re a friend not foe, and you’ll be grateful that they’ve gotten some sleep and your comments aren’t life or death to them.

Cure ADS and Your World Gets Better Too

Not only will your agency get better at working with you, but also you’ll get better at working with agencies – that’s a vital career skill for any marketer.  One of the tragedies of large brand-agency relationships is the distance between the people who are really doing the work (the agency Team) and the people in the brand marketing organization.

In the Agile “Two Guys” model, as a marketer, you’ll learn new things every time you meet with your agency Team – they are a hotbed of the latest, trending ideas and technologies.  Keeping up to date with them will not only put you ahead of your peers, but give you the knowledge and real-world experience of how to actually do this stuff.