The honeymoon is over: now the real relationship has to grow

Lawrence Weber, Managing Partner at Karmarama, discusses the importance of better working relationships between start-ups and agencies.

One of the benefits of joining the IPA’s mission to help start-ups and agencies work better together has been assessing and refocusing Karmarama’s working relationships with early-stage businesses.

Let’s get the positives out of the way first.

We’ve worked with Unilever Foundry for nearly three years and been a part of them running over 100 start-up pilots; we’re partnering with organisations like Friday Club London to better connect our clients and UK start-ups; and we are trialling an offer of desk space, mentoring and client introductions to businesses that we feel can work with us and our clients to deliver innovation.

In short- I hope- we genuinely embrace the stimulus of partners and the affect they have on our most important asset — our work.

But despite all our good intentions, we realised we weren’t getting good outcomes often enough.

So we’ve thought hard about the lessons of success and failure, and changed some of the ways we engage with start-ups and the broader tech community.

Here are four key learnings from those conversations, and what we are planning to do about them:

Be clear on what you want from each other

The first step to having a meaningful relationship with a start-up is understanding why you might want one in the first place.

We’ve learnt not to ask a start-up to change its core offering too much and not to sell it as a production company. Bespoke briefs are still — we believe — the domain of an agency. The start-ups we spoke to largely agree.

However we’re also learning to be honest about things that we could do for clients that it would make more sense to get a start-up to deliver. Short-term revenue is sometimes less important than the longer-term goal of doing the right thing, especially if in the long run the client takes more risks.

Clarity right from the start makes the discussions and, ultimately, the end-relationships better.

Be honest and say ‘no’…

Our biggest learning from talking to start-ups we have engaged but not worked with is that we aren’t brutal enough. From initial show-and-tells to specific briefings we’ve sometimes let things drift and been too optimistic about the opportunities on offer. A start-up’s valuable time can be wasted.

We all like to know where we stand. Saying “Sorry it’s us, not you” lets us all focus on the opportunities that might come off.

…But equally understand not every meeting needs to end in a sale

Among start-ups it’s common to think agencies like to waste their time. I often get an ear-bashing about this.

I don’t think it’s true, but it’s clear that sometimes start-ups arrive thinking a meeting means a sale, and when they don’t get one they cry foul.

There is nothing wrong with inviting start-ups to present in an inspiration session or having them join a show-and-tell for the agency or clients.

However, if you can’t see a clear path to a proposal or a project for the people you are inviting in, then make sure there is something in it for them.

Organise reverse mentoring, commit to providing them with three good contacts, or offer constructive criticism on presentations or pitches. These things have value and they are worth trading if all you really want is inspiration on a wet Tuesday lunchtime.

Foreign bodies can get rejected

The creative process rarely produces a smooth ride. The adage that committees ruin good ideas often holds up.

So if you are going to introduce a start-up that can’t always be as flexible as the creative process requires, you might not get the result everyone wants.

We’ve found providing creatives with an interesting set of start-up technologies at briefing stage, and then only pulling in the start-up that makes it through the initial reviews, is much less harrowing for everyone.

It’s also vital that the contributions and voices of outside partners need to be constantly represented and pushed into conversations to make sure they have the desired impact. Ideally that responsibility should sit with one person.

In the spirit of openness I’d love to hear from start-ups and other agencies. You might agree or disagree with our conclusions. Either way, we’re committed to making it better for all parties, so feel free to make any suggestions you like.

Tweet me @lawrenceweber if you have any thoughts — good or bad.

Join us for the launch of a new IPA initiative — a charter enshrining good practice commitments for agencies that want to deal fairly and openly when partnering with start-ups. At Advertising Week 2016 we heard some case examples of what not to do when entering this new and exciting area. Since then we’ve been collating more examples of good and bad behaviour from agencies, start-ups and intermediaries.

By consulting with practitioners across the spectrum, we have compiled a guide to best practice and drawn up a charter for agencies to commit to. We are asking the industry to abide by this new charter. Our panel will outline top tips for agencies and start-ups, and 10 new best practice ‘marriage vows’ to abide by. Find out more about the event here.

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