In my 14-year career as a CPG marketer, I hired dozens of agencies to execute every part of the marketing mix and innovation process. Now that I’m approaching the end of my first year as an innovation consultant, here are 4 tips for a successful innovation agency partnership built from my view from both sides.
The first tip, Partnership & Trust, is so straightforward and intuitive that I almost hesitated to include it. But as I reflect on my time coming up through the hierarchy of CPG Marketing, I saw firsthand how some Marketers embraced external agencies, shared openly and got strong results efficiently, while others kept their agencies at an arm’s length and saw more limited success - often with higher cost in both time and fees, as their lack of transparency resulted in re-work or more work to get the same end deliverable. Now that I’m on the other side, it is crystal clear that clients that trust us and share openly enable us to help them more deeply. In the best-case scenario, we have visibility to both the innovation project’s challenges and success criteria, but also to how that project fits into the larger organization, who the final decision makers are and how best to support the project team for their future internal selling.
I’ll note that over the years I often heard concerns or was counseled to be careful about speaking freely in front of our agency partners. With my view from the other side, I’d share that our perspective and motivations as an agency partner perfectly align with yours in that the client’s trust and confidentiality is paramount to us as an agency. At the end of the day, our clients trust it’s the basis of our reputation so it is in our best interest that as we learn the inner challenges and details of the business, that we protect them as our own.
Once that strong partnership is established, we can build bigger and better ideas together than either of us could do independently. As the brand and business owners, you have deep knowledge and expertise that shapes and guides the work. As external partners, we bring a breadth of experience across many categories and fresh thinking that comes from not being 100% steeped in your category and your product. At any given time, we’re working in variety of industries, product categories, retailers and business challenges that we can extrapolate from to help solve your challenge. Our best partnerships involve going back-and-forth with our clients to build up the ideas with them.
The second tip’s value has become much more clear with my new consultant’s perspective: Start with the end in mind. As the Marketer engaging an agency for support, I often found myself under time pressure and was reluctant to slow down enough to create a project proposal document for a job. It was hard to distill down the issues and get clarity on what a win meant for the business team. Now, as the receiver of dozens of verbal, emailed and RFP proposal requests this year, I clearly see the value of that upfront document. The clients that prepare brief but well thought through request documents get our best thinking from day one as they set us up for success with clarity on what is important and what success looks like. Taking the time to write out your challenge ensures we’re all starting from the same page and know what is expected.
The third tip is: Value outside perspectives. Our clients with the strongest results not only genuinely partner with us and have clarity to their end goals, but they also actively challenge us to challenge them. It is our culture to speak honestly and straightforward with all of our clients but there are differing levels of communication openness and formality with each client. Those who invite the challenges and respectful disagreements see the best value from our outside perspective.
When working on disruptive innovation for your business, we recommend keeping us a little on the outside by giving us just enough background to get us grounded (and avoid re-work on your knowledge base) but not so much as to bring us too close to your internal perspective. It is best when we can remain a little distanced so that we can bring in bold thinking from outside your current view.
The fourth and last tip comes from my last few years in CPG where I focused on creating new brands and products that could drive accretive growth to the business through disruptive innovation. I was tasked to behave entrepreneurially, mimic the startups that are disrupting big food across the country and build a system to “sell a little, learn a lot”. At the time, I was aware that most other CPG companies had teams tasked with similar goals. What I’ve come to see this year, is how similar and consistent the challenges are that all Innovators face across CPG companies in trying to accomplish similar outputs. So, the fourth tip is: Externalize your pain points.
With our lean, entrepreneurial mindset and Microburst™ transactional testing methodology, we can move much faster than internal Innovation teams within large companies. We simply have less hurdles to clear, are not constrained by existing systems and mitigate risk by being in a small-scale test environment. We are perfectly suited to externalize the areas where I’m seeing most innovation teams struggle because of the constraints that are in place to ensure efficient use of funds and resources to focus on big, on-going businesses. After having personally experience the frustration of trying to do this type of live testing from within a big company and having heard how many others face the same challenges, I’m more certain than ever that outsourcing this is the best way for Innovation teams in large companies to test and learn new, disruptive innovation ideas in a real-world setting.