8 Employer Brand Lessons Learned While Working with Agency Partners

Going it alone can be valuable when you’re short on resources, and long for talent. But for many organizations, working with an external partner can provide in-depth, rigorous experience when you don’t have it in-house. Depending upon an organization’s goals, there is a whole list of reasons why you might take this step. Perhaps there is a need for unbiased workforce research due to merger and acquisition (M&A) activity. It could be the need for niche expertise to breathe new life into stale talent attraction strategies. Maybe your team doesn’t have the capacity to deliver as quickly as the business needs.

Whatever your reasons, working with an agency or consulting partner is different from working with your internal colleagues. (<—Click to tweet this!) (For better or worse.) Our team has been on both sides of the table: the in-house talent acquisition leader and the outside consultant. And as with any relationship, there are bound to be peaks and valleys. We’ve got the stories and scars to prove it.

Let our team’s lessons learned be your strategic advantage. Here are eight things to consider when building that external relationship:


Advice from Shannon Smedstad

Years ago, I worked with an outside agency on creative concepts. My former employer wanted new creative to differentiate its campus recruiting program. What was presented to us by the agency was creative, but lacked the necessary alignment. The agency took liberties to put a new spin on our logo and how to spell our name. These alterations were so misaligned we couldn’t use any of the work. In hindsight, we’d given too much freedom. Had we given specific guidelines, perhaps the output would have been different.

Bottomline: You know your brand best. You know what can and cannot be done. Educate your partners on what is absolutely off-limits, so the work has a better chance of wowing you. Provide them with a corporate narrative, brand standards, and any employer brand guidelines. Then, step away to let the creative process take over.


Advice from April Sherman, employer brand strategist and engagement manager

Over the course of several years spent managing employer brand and recruitment marketing in-house, I worked with a number of outside agencies to help us position ourselves creatively, off our owned brand platforms. We wanted to target key talent segments and knew we’d need creative content and platform positioning to do this. One of the agencies we worked with had done a great job creating impactful content for job seekers in the past, so we brought them on board again. What they brought to us was technically creative, but it wasn’t unique. It mirrored much of the content they’d created for other clients, and only told candidates what they likely had already assumed about us as an organization and employer — we were large, conservative, and highly regulated.

Bottomline: Never assume your partners know how far you’re willing to take your creative strategy. Let them know if you’re looking for their “standard” offering, or if you’d like to see them take things to the next level. Be really clear about the challenges your brand faces, and let them know if you’re open to new and innovative strategies to help deliver your brand message to the right audience. Ask a lot of questions about work they’ve done for other organizations in similar industries, and challenge them to provide creative that helps you stand out.


Advice from Lexi Gordon

Let’s be honest, most of our employer brand resources aren’t even close to Super Bowl ad budgets. Our investments may be limited, so where we spend money needs to have an impact. I remember working in-house employer brand and outsourcing our social media analytics and reporting. The reports were basic, there were errors, and the service didn’t add much value. Now, as a consultant, I ask myself after every client call, after sending off every deliverable, “was that worth it for my client?” I want them to feel like the money they have invested in me and my company is providing value to them.

Bottomline: Continually evaluate your partnerships and make sure you are getting worthwhile value out of their products and services. Provide honest feedback on a regular basis to make sure your partners know where they stand and can take opportunities to adjust based on your feedback.


Advice from Julia Zelenock

In my experience, bringing internal and external perspectives together can deliver extraordinary results. As a former in-house marketing and brand leader, the most innovative and effective work came from embracing our agency partners as an extension of the team. In the same spirit as bringing in a new employee, spend time onboarding your external team members. Help them immerse in your brand, your work, the department, and with others they will be working with. Then, continue evolving together. This may mean including your external team members in regular team meetings or providing visibility to new and important information that will impact the pulse of the collective team.

Bottomline: Like with most initiatives, investment, trust, and partnership on the front end, yields efficiency, not to mention impressive outcomes (and great experiences) in the long run. Embracing agency partners as team members will make your work feel more like a partnership than an exchange.


Advice from Alyssa Bani,

You may find a partner who's known for bold, out-of-the-box ideas, or someone who excels with creative execution. But what about the bigger picture? The success of a client/agency relationship is dependent on so much more than the project timeline, budget, or deliverables. Determining an agency's capacity to help you define success metrics, and the ability to help you tell your story internally is critical and can often be overlooked. When I was in-house, my best agency experiences were the result of partners who helped me find opportunities to show leadership the value my team brought to the business and our customers using both practiced and innovative measures.

Bottomline: Working with your agency to define desired outcomes and metrics not only helps ensure alignment, it also gives you a foundation to show stakeholders the value you and your team have on the business, which can come in handy when seeking budget or other resources.


Advice from Susan LaMotte

When I was in-house working with numerous agencies, we were always wowed by pitches. I worked for big brand names and the agencies wanted our business, badly. But once they got on board, the experience was often different. Account managers would turn over regularly, the creative they wowed us with came with a different price tag, and they were more focused on growing the account than on our satisfaction. Focus on the details that matter to you. Ask every question (no matter how seemingly mundane) and walk through the process in painstaking detail before you sign on the dotted line to ensure you get to that exceptional and impactful creative result.

Bottomline: Find out exactly how the partnership will play out in the day-to-day. Who is involved, what experience do they have, and how will the partnership work. Don’t just ask for examples of the end product. Get insight into every step of the partnership too.


Advice from Emily Fritz

While this may sound like dating advice, it actually works for agency partners too. When I was in-house researching numerous agencies and vendors, I was overwhelmed by the number of choices. It can feel like a never-ending rabbit hole of demos, pitches, and presentations. Selecting the largest or most well-known agency has its pros, but also cons. The same goes for choosing a newer or perhaps lesser known one. Do you need custom, personalized work or a standard offering? Does your team need high-touch, or can they take things and run? Focus on what’s important to you and your organization.

Bottomline: Before you even start researching partners, make sure you understand your specific requirements and goals for a successful partnership. Don’t assume that the bigger fish is the safer bet or that the small fish can deliver everything you need.


Advice from Adrienne Betenbaugh

Having been on the agency side for over a decade, I wish I had read all this advice during my early career years! It’s an insider’s track on how to best work across functional teams to accomplish goals and build relationships. (Seriously, so helpful). One of the biggest lessons I have learned is it’s imperative to recognize that “we are all busy.” The teams on the in-house side often have other assignments and projects, and it’s common for agency teams to be balancing different clients across sectors. One of the most helpful ways to navigate the busy-ness of business is to set up your projects for success from the onset. Discuss having a timeline that can move the ball from player to player down the court, so when one group is off doing a task or assignment, related to the project, the other team is owning a piece too. This will prevent project lag and help you stay on track and within budget!

Bottomline: Craft your engagements so that work is moving in a forward direction and can keep momentum even if a team is engaged on a particular piece of the work. Be honest and realistic about timelines, and hold each other accountable to deliver the best partnership.

Ultimately, when it comes to working with an outside partner, it’s about first selecting a partner that can help you solve your unique challenges and doing it in a way that is customized to your organization and how you like to work. Whether it’s a large agency or a boutique firm, both have different strengths in what they do and styles in how they do it. When you’ve found the right partner, you’ll know. And, hopefully, they will feel like an extension of your team —not just a vendor.

This blog post is a #teamexaqueo collaboration. Contact exaqueo to learn more about our employer brand innovation, workforce research, and recruiting strategy offerings.

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