Welcome to the fourth episode of Collective Content’s How to choose a content agency podcast series. Now that we’ve covered the preliminary stages of choosing a content agency, our hosts Daine Lindsay and Collective Content MD Tony Hallett are joined by senior editor Julian Heathcote and client services director Fiona Skilton to discuss the importance of good chemistry. How do you spot it, how do you build on it and how important is it really? Listen to the episode to find out – or you can check out the full Collective Content “How to choose a content agency” guide to learn even more, available here.
You can also find this episode here;
Tony: At this point we’ve talked a little bit in this series about reputation ‒ where you can go out and find out about any agency before they even know that you’re interested in them. And there will also have then been when you get in touch. Normally an agency will say, ‘look, well, here’s the kind of thing we can do.’ It might be quite generic.
It might be like a creds deck and some case studies. And maybe you’ve done a couple of phone calls already. So the chemistry phase is about ‘here’s what’s in front of me now ‒ is that consistent with what I’ve been led to believe so far?’ And if it feels like they’re not the same company, the same agency, then that doesn’t feel right, that’s a bad sign.
Fiona: I think also, too, it’s worth asking questions to try and work out how easy it is to do business with this agency, because a good relationship doesn’t require loads of hard work and babysitting. So ask the agency questions about ways of working. Processes. What’s the briefing process? What’s the sign off process? How the agency will extract information from your subject matter experts.
And again, this is all a good way of ascertaining whether there’s chemistry or not with your agency and whether the agency aligns with your way of doing things as well.
One, two, three, four
Daine: Hello and welcome to the Collective Content Podcast. My name is Daine and this is our ‘How to Choose a content Agency’ series ‒ Episode Four ‒ Chemistry. We’ve got two great guests today to help companies choose their next agency wisely. Joining us once again is Julian Heathcote, a Collective Content senior editor. And joining us for the first and not the last time this series is Fiona Skilton, Collective Content’s client services director.
And if you want to get your hands on more expert advice on this subject, then please check out the full Collective Content How to Choose a Content Agency Guide, available on our website. Link in the description.
But right now, also joining us is Collective Content Managing Director Tony Hallett. Hi, Tony,
Tony: Hey there Daine. Good to be back here and good to be getting into the meat of starting to reach out and speak to different agencies.
[Music intro swells then fades]
Three, two, one. Yeah
Daine: So Tony, what do we mean by chemistry?
Tony: It’s a really good question. What do we mean by chemistry? You often hear about different people talking about chemistry sessions and have you got good chemistry with your agency or any other suppliers and partners for example? But the essence of it is, are you going to click? Are you going to trust each other? Do you feel like you’ve got transparency? Are these people you can talk to when things aren’t going well and course correct? That’s just a starter for ten and is absolutely a question which I’m going to hand over now to Fiona and Julian.
Fiona, as client services director, chemistry is a massive thing for the long term, as well as the initial choosing. What have I got wrong basically?
Fiona: Well, I don’t think you’ve got anything wrong there, Tony. I think that chemistry is a really important part of any relationship in your life, whether it’s personal or professional relationships. So you’re going to want to think about how easy things are going to be if you do business with this agency. So that’s something very important to try and ascertain at the outset.
The chemistry meeting ‒ in person ideally, sometimes that’s not possible. Sometimes it might have to be a video call. Cameras on. But ideally you do it in person because you can really get a feel for the agency that you’re going to be working with. There’s a lot to be said for body language and facial expressions, and you can really tell quite a lot during that chemistry meeting about whether these are people you’re going to get along with or not.
Julian: I think that’s really important, what you said there Fiona, to see the whites of someone’s eyes and yeah, it could be a video. Would be a better in person, if possible and not always possible these days because we work so internationally. But I think if you start out with a bad feeling about the people you’re going to be working with, then you should try and trust that. Your gut is really actually quite a strong portent for all types of things when it concerns relationships and you know, it’s intimate, you’re going to spend a long time with these people and you’re going to want to trust them.
So, you know, listen to what your body is telling you as much as what your intellect is telling you when you make that decision.
Fiona: Yeah. And I think the honesty point is really important there, Julian. You’re going to want your agency to be really transparent with you. So that’s really key in terms of building trust.
Julian: Honesty. I mean, that’s my number one value. I think I value it higher than things like humility. I think it’s important as well to ask those different sorts of questions to understand, to know what they’re going to come back with. And if you’re not quite sure, I think asking some questions of how they work, what you can expect from them, you’ll soon start to get an idea of if you can have that chemistry, if it can develop. It’s not something that’s going to come naturally anyway.
It’s not necessarily a thing about liking someone and thinking that they’re going to be your best friend. It’s ‘can they do the job?’ and ‘can we work together?’ I think on a professional level that’s really important.
Fiona: Yeah, definitely. Sometimes clients and agency folk do become best friends, so who knows? Who knows? But I think that something really important as well as listening to your gut and not listening to your gut, is your own red flag.
So just be very aware of that as well. Something to ask about is the people that you meet in the chemistry session ‒ Are they going to be your agency team or are they people that are just being parachuted in for the chemistry session? If that’s the case, you definitely don’t want that. You won’t be meeting the people that you’re actually going to be doing business with.
Tony: Jumping in there Fiona, I want to see the look on people’s faces when you ask them that. And then they have to turn around and say ‘actually no’, or are they lying? And then your gut picks up on it. It sounds like a Rob Mayhew bit, to be honest, that you’d see on LinkedIn or TikTok or somewhere.
Fiona: Definitely. Definitely. There’s a lot of meme and Mickey-taking videos to come out to that for sure.
It’s also a two way street. So your agency is going to be looking for honesty and transparency from you as the client as well. The chemistry session is a really good opportunity for everyone to lay their cards on the table.
Daine: What other factors would you need to look out for in regards to transparency from an agency ‒ either around billing or how you’re going to work with them, Tony?
Tony: Yeah, I always jump in with the financial thing. Well, Fiona’s very good at jumping in with the financial questions and answers as well. I’ll quickly take the floor for a few seconds just to say it is not rude to ask about pricing and ways of pricing and working upfront. Any agency that umms and ahhs and doesn’t want to tell you, and says ‘it all depends’ or ‘everything’s customized’ ‒ that is a bit of a red flag. I mean, there is some truth in that. No two engagements are exactly the same. But agencies should have a rate card. They should have things like effective hourly rates with different levels of people. You should have some idea of how your budget will match up with what their capability is.
So don’t be embarrassed about talking money. And we’re seeing here, I think all of us… No, we’re not all in the UK, but we’ve got lots of British people on the call here and British people are typically very bad about talking about money. And of course lots of our clients are international. You just have to get over it, right? Just talk about the money.
Fiona: Yeah. It’s really important. Nobody ever wants any nasty finance surprises again in your personal or professional life, so have the conversation upfront. Ask any questions you want to, and any agency worth its salt will raise these issues or concerns with you upfront anyway. But just ask away.
Julian: I think it’s kind of it’s all linked to trust, isn’t it? Really as well, this whole thing about chemistry, can you trust them?
And again, with the finance thing, are they going to be open and tell you exactly, you know, what the structure is and why? What time are you going to get for that? Are they going to give you honest answers? Basically, any questions that you might have. Will I have senior level input on strategic things? How much time will I get per week from a team member if you got a retainer relationship.
A lot of times when you meet an agency for the first time, you will get a lot of senior people come in to say hello, whatever, to present, and they are people you may never, ever see again. They just want to try and win your business. So I think it’s very important to say, I want you to meet the team that you’re going to work with. The person is your day-to-day, your account manager. Make sure that that person becomes your best friend. Call them. Call them as you need. Be frank, be open, ask questions, and any kind of good relationship is based on that honesty and you know, and being good to them and being their friend, being nice to them is also important because you get more out of them.
They’ll want to work with you, they’ll do better work. This is why chemistry is so important to any relationship. You want to get the best possible for the money that you’re investing. So make sure that the chemistry is right from the beginning. You know, making sure that it’s right is really going to help you in the long run anyway. So consider that, always.
Daine: Say you are at this meeting with them. How else do you know if they are the right fit for you? What else should companies look out for during these interactions? Julian?
Julian: Yeah, I suppose it’s empathy. Do you warm to the person? Do you feel there is some kind of relationship? There are some kind of common ground. It really depends on what you actually want out of it anyway and what you’re going to get out the relationship.
I’m really talking about feelings ‒ gut feelings ‒ again. You should be able to tell quite quickly in any kind of incipient relationship that, you know, if the person is a good fit for you and that could be a lover, that could be any kind of business relationship. But it’s it’s pretty much the same thing. It boils down to the same thing. Do you feel that, in this case in this business relationship, you can work with that person? Do you think they will do a good job? Do you think that you be able to work together to make sure that they are fit for you is right?
For instance, if you’ve got a very specific way of working or voice, perhaps, are they going to be able to take on your voice? It’s all these things that you want to satisfy, but if something doesn’t feel right, I think you’ll know quite early on.
Tony: I would also take it back a step Julian, to any inconsistencies because at this point, remember, we’ve talked a little bit in the series about reputation, where you can go out and find out about any agency before they even know that you’re interested in them.
And there will also have then been when you get in touch, normally an agency will say, ‘look, well, here’s the kind of thing we can do.’ It might be quite generic, it might be like a creds deck and some case studies, and maybe you’ve done a couple of phone calls already. So, the chemistry phase is about, well, is what’s in front of me now – and the gut feeling, and the way people are together, the whites of the eyes, all of these things – Is that consistent with what I’ve been led to believe so far?
So what’s out there in the wide world? How they’re marketing themselves, how they’ve specifically spoken to us in the build up to this meeting. And if it feels like they’re not the same company, the same agency, then that doesn’t feel right, that’s a bad sign.
Fiona: Yeah, definitely. And I think also, too, it’s worth asking questions to try and work out how easy it is to do business with this agency, because a good relationship doesn’t require loads of hard work and babysitting. So ask the agency questions about ways of working. Processes. What’s the briefing process? What’s the sign off process? How your agency will extract information from your subject matter experts and that sort of thing. And again, this is all a good way of ascertaining whether there’s chemistry or not with your agency and whether the agency aligns with your way of doing things as well.
Daine: Tony, how much of a difference can get in to know your agency ready make then?
Tony: Yeah, it’s huge. I think we’ve really heard a lot from both Julian and Fiona about how important it is, and I think we’ve only just touched on how badly things can go wrong if you end up with a mismatch. So it’s one of the things that is very hard, especially early on, because by definition you don’t know the people across the table from you at that point.
But I think the point of this episode, in this series and the section in our guide is to really call it out. To just take a second to think about how important this phase is, and it really tees up everything from this point on. So all the kind of necessary but slightly dull on-boarding, the more interesting kind of like rolling up your sleeves and getting into the work.
Those are two very, very different things, but they’re all eminently better if you’ve got that good chemistry from the outset.
Julian: And I think, you know, just go back to what you said before about a creds deck, or a website, or perhaps a proposal that they’ve put together ‒ they’re just the tools and, you know, they help and it gives you a first impression.
But the chemistry part of it is when you go deeper. You know the website might be rubbish, the creds deck might be rubbish. It’s possible.
Tony: Well, they might be amazing. They might look fantastic. And it’s the other way.
Julian: Exactly. Exactly. So, you know, that might be actually amazing, but they’re not selling themselves enough. You’re not looking for them to have like a really amazingly designed website. You’re looking for if they can do the work, if they can do the job and if you can work with them. So, you know, always go beyond that, always go beyond what is sort of, I don’t know, the shiny and bright and look a bit deeper into what they’re about.
Fiona: Yeah, that’s right. Because although we operate largely in the B2B space, we do business with people. So people do business with people. It’s not companies doing business with companies. There’s the human element which really can’t be underestimated.
Daine: We obviously spoke a lot about transparency and meeting people and get to know each other. What would be common red flags for the companies to look out for?
Fiona: I think definitely not meeting, not meeting the agency team during that chemistry session. And as Julian mentioned, sometimes the senior leadership team will be helicoptered in and then you might never see most of those people again.
So that’s a big red flag. You want to be able to meet the people that you’re actually going to be doing business with during that chemistry session. But also too, if and when you’re talking about ways of working and processes, it just does not align with your business at all, then I would say that’s probably a red flag. Of course question your agency. I mean, we can be quite flexible and find workarounds to meet the needs of our clients. But if your agency is quite rigid, you need to have a think about is that going to work for you or not?
Tony: Fiona, you picked up on the rigidity of the way that certain agencies behave and I’ll approach that from a flip angle, which is that we see some real high growth agencies and the way that they’re really high growth is they have very set packages.
It’s like ‘this is the way we work, take it or leave it’ and some clients will take it and have a bad experience. So that’s very agency-centric. Great for them. They’re high growth, wonderful. But it’s not about them. It’s about them doing a good job for the client in this case. That’s what we care about.
And one thing we haven’t mentioned on this episode is I would ask the agency about retention, about client retention. And good retention is often based on this good long-term relationship and almost certainly has good chemistry involved there. And I’m just going to get this because I love it. The flip side to the client retention, is good staff retention and the two often go hand in hand.
You got happy agency with good people doing great work. You’ll have happier clients as well. So I’ve said everything in that answer.
Fiona: I think, something else as well. A question to ask yourself is ‘are these people that I could actually go for a coffee with, or a drink with, or lunch?’ Tony and I had a wonderful chemistry session with a prospect last week, and I’m not sure I’ve ever laughed so much in a chemistry session, actually.
So you know, we came out of that feeling really good and really, really hoping to work with this guy and his business. So enjoying yourself during the chemistry session as well? Why not?
Tony: Yeah, laughter is a great sign. Laughter is fantastic. And in terms I mean in lots of facets of life and working culture, like laughter’s a good indicator that you’ve got a good culture.
And in the context of a chemistry session, if you think about the flipside, when there’s no laughter, that’s often because people are treading on eggshells , everyone’s very nervous and people don’t want to make mistakes. And a good sign of a good relationship is that you can make mistakes, but, you know, you can always correct them and get to a better place.
And no one’s going to be shouting at each other and taking it the wrong way. So laughter is – I’m glad you mentioned that Fiona.
Julian: I think you know quite quickly when you start speak someone have you got sort of a feeling of you know, you can they can see that there’s this common ground, you know, you share something, they respond quickly to you. The conversation is free flowing. Those sorts of things. And obviously laughter is great. But I think, you know, pretty quickly if the relationship is going to work by the way the person responds to you. You know, that’s the thing. I think I always look for myself.
Daine: So we’ve sort discussed what an agency can do from their side. But then is there anything that a client can do from their side to build and manage chemistry effectively? Julian?
Julian: Yes, absolutely. And from the beginning as well, it’s very important that you establish a good relationship with whomever you’re going to be working with, and that means giving them, I mean, it’s things like giving them proper briefs. It’s things like making sure you put in time to talk at regular meetings, all these things. What you invest in the relationship, you’ll get out.
You know, you’ll get as much out as much you invest and put in, it’s very important to do that to start with and to continue the relationship, you need to nurture it and maintain it ‒ like with any relationship. If you want your agency to do good work, you all have to give them a helping hand.
Fiona: I think when a client or prospect has an appreciation of everyone needing to eat. That’s definitely a good thing. So really, I think if a client or prospect is looking for an agency to become an extension of their team, that is a really great way of looking at things. So it’s less of a client and supplier relationship and it’s more a partnership going forward.
So I think if as a client you can go into a chemistry meeting with that mentality, then you’re setting yourselves and your agency up for success.
Tony: Yeah, I’d add to that the it’s that a client mindset that says ‘we want you to be successful too’, and ‘what can we do to help you get on as an agency or even the individual, the account director and the main creatives and everyone else that’s on an account.’ That’s a really healthy early sign.
So the successes is a two way street, and this idea of the agency needs to eat. The agency has to make money too. Otherwise what’s the point of them being there for you? You know, both sides need that kind of corporate success.
And the last thing I would say is that a good chemistry phase and a good chemistry session, the agency, you should be getting the vibes that they’re also weighing up whether they’re going to choose you. If it feels like they’re going to take your work no matter what, I don’t think that’s really a great sign. So look out for those signals and it’s absolutely valid for an agency to get to this point and turn around and say ‘you know what, we thought this was a really good fit. It turns out it’s not.’
If that happens, don’t take it badly. It doesn’t happen that often. But again, it’s a good, healthy sign and you move on because someone else will be the right fit.
Multiple voices: This is the Collective Content podcast.
Daine: Thanks so much. Thanks to both our guest today, Fiona and Julian. And thank you to you as well Tony. Great.
Tony: Thanks everyone.
Fiona: Thank you.
Julian: Thank you very much.
Diane: Yeah, it’s really been great chatting with you about such a key element when it comes to choosing a content agency. And thank you to the listeners.
Please join us next time where we’ll be looking at what actually happens once you’ve chosen the right agency and begin onboarding.
In the meantime, don’t forget you can always get more quality insights in Collective Content’s How to Choose a Content Agency Guide on our website. Links will be in the description. Check it out and let us know your thoughts on Twitter and LinkedIn.
So until next time, take care.