October 19, 2015

Strategies For Maintaining Great Collaborative Relationships

Matthew Billingsley • Chief Creative Officer

The courtship is complete. The ink from the signatures on the contracts and agreements has dried. Beer steins or wine glasses have even been clinked. The anticipation of creating a new product and service has everyone giddy and energized. This is going to be a game-changer for everyone involved, especially the client. But as the weeks go by, a new reality starts dawning: The agreed upon vision is changing. Daily decisions are not reinforcing the agreed upon direction despite an expressed agreement and approved budgets. This will not only strain the project but the relationship with the client.

What do you do to encourage all involved to stay the course and protect the relationship at the same time?

Also, how can you successfully manage the “unknown” until a new vision is understood while making sure budgets (overages) don’t get out of control? After all, no one feels good about spending money for work they don’t want to use and creatives can’t give it all away for free. So what’s the best way to navigate these situations so there’s a win-win? The following details some common threats to success and how to best protect you from the project and relationship going sour.

Loss of Funding

Sometimes money set aside for your engagement needs to feed a higher priority initiative, event, or an emergency within the organization. If it’s large enough of a change to cease all work – temporarily or permanently – all that can be done is to offer words of understanding and/or encouragement. In other cases it may not be that complex of a reason and someone simply miscalculated. Regardless, remain cordial and ensure them you will be ready to move forward when they are.

How you can protect yourself:

  1. Do homework on the organization. How do they generate revenue? Learn about who their outside stakeholders or investors are. If they have been in business for a few years this info should easy to come by with light research. Ask people on the client team questions about their culture.
  2. Unless it is offered before the project starts ask the client to explain how it will be funded.
  3. Get a fraction of the payment upfront.


There’s a saying that a rising tide will lift all ships. This type of rising tide leader is hands-on and listens to your team’s solutions while offering their own. He or she is an active collaborator and partner. The reverse can also apply and that tide can recede leaving ships battered and stranded.

At times, a lack of focus creeps in and tactics may switch on a dime several times with little regard for the plan in place before the kickoff. If this isn’t addressed, morale can deflate in the team, investors, or vendors to the point that the relationship is damaged. Recommendations and ideas from either side of the team are ignored or twisted from reasons unknown with no better alternatives provided. Both scenarios are loaded with landmines to dodge so pick your battles carefully.

How you can protect yourself:

  1. Consistently refer to the brief and enforce your recommendations. Remember why your group was hired: to steward the project’s goals.
  2. Have clear exit clause language in a contract or service agreement document. To use only in case of emergency once it’s clear no more progress can be made.
  3. Have one client team member, or a smaller team, in charge of making decisions. Advise the client to avoid the larger group-think approach to making key decisions.

Client Turnover

In a vacuum this is usually not a variable for weakening a client relationship. But when it does affect a project it’s disheartening to see interoffice differences derail a promising project.

Months ago we made the hard choice to let go of one of our most valued clients for this reason. The person who hired us moved on to a new opportunity. Over time we continued smoothly and grew a relatively healthy and affable relationship with their replacement. Then that person’s role changed within their organization and our day-to-day communication switched to another person again. Over that period we began contact with a new set of organization hires. All equally good-natured but by this time the communications team we dealt with had been nearly replaced wholesale. New voices and reinterpretation that was once considered fresh reduced productivity to a crawl. Checkpoints were often missed in all the turnover activity and widening the pool of feedback and voices. When it became clear we could no longer do work to our standards we ended the relationship.

How you can protect yourself:

  1. Remain professional and roll with the punches. This is where client service expertise and resource management becomes refined and focused. Make the most of a bad situation and remain a steady presence for the client in a difficult time.


Sometimes an organization decides to change course. Whether it’s redirecting the project in-house to save money, or postponing the project for internal reasons, it’s within their power to do so. The point where this becomes a problem is when this happens. It’s a no-no if this course changing happens during the project and work has already commenced. It’s a bigger no-no if a new agency is brought in without your consultation.

If you are blindsided by a second agency being inserted into the project your impact becomes diminished if not eliminated completely. Who is driving? What personnel is redundant or missing? Communication channels will get noisy and clash with one another. If you are unexpectedly forced to collaborate with a different group then you have a much harder hill to climb and much larger team of people to make happy. This is unacceptable.

How you can protect yourself:

  1. Ask if the organization has an in-house team ahead of time. If the answer is yes and if it’s understood they will have a role, treat them as partners and equals. They will know the project/product better than you. Add their expertise to your group’s resources. You will have created allies in an influential group of people.
  2. Ask the organization to disclose if there is an incumbent agency under contract. Learn what tasks and roles they will perform if any. Meet with that team early and often to make sure both approaches and objectives are aligned with the client’s.
  3. Arm your team with agreement language that outlines exclusivity and rights of refusal for bringing in a different agency.

In our nine years of practice at Visceral we’ve had our share of missed opportunities. Though I wasn’t at the time, I’m thankful for them now. Those experiences have kept us focused and humbled in everything we set out to do. It’s become a cliché but there truly is no success without failure first. Face it head-on when these things happen and understand why and how things went sideways, adjust and retool as needed, then come back stronger.

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