Overcoming The Hands-Brain Divide In Agency Partnerships

When companies and their agencies develop truly successful relationships, the result is typically far greater than the sum of its parts. Just look at Unilever and its 120-year partnership with MullenLowe.. The two groups first partnered back in 1899 to support Unilever’s soaps when the company employed just 750 people. Today, after an untold number of campaigns together, Unilever produces 400 brands and employs more than 161,000 people, according to the company

The MullenLowe-Unilever partnership, like Wieden+Kennedy’s three-decade relationship with Nike, hinges on the ability to artfully leverage each other’s time and expertise to extract maximum value. The success of these company-agency partnerships has been driven by a mutual understanding of how to leverage the agency as another “brain” in the company, not just another set of “hands” to execute someone else’s vision.   

The hands-brain divide has limited the potential of many a company-agency relationship by relegating agency partners to doers rather than thinkers. Here’s why it happens — and how to overcome it. 



Projects become decontextualized. Somewhere along the line, someone decides something needs to happen because a business metric wasn’t met or the team received feedback from internal or external audiences. A solution is proposed, with a beginning and end, desired outcomes and a clear budget. 

But few clients bring agencies along on that journey to understand why the course of action is being taken. Instead, they deliver a brief with the desired message and outcome and ask whether the agency can do it — putting the agency in the role of another set of hands, not a strategic partner. 

How to move across the hands-brain divide: Details on research and development, product roadmap or future goals are not always articulated in a creative brief for an individual project. However, those insights arm an agency with an understanding of broader organizational strategies.

Approach the project as a problem that needs to be solved, rather than an output that needs to be delivered, and be agnostic about how you solve it.

Ensure that all parties know how the initiative connects with what the organization is trying to do with the brand and where in the customer journey it will influence the brand. 

Language gets in the way. Industry and company jargon or acronyms can become a barrier that effectively shuts down dialogue. In some cases, they can create a situation where information is withheld or doled out sparsely, giving the agency just enough to perform the task at hand but not enough to think holistically. 

How to move across the hands-brain divide: Understand that acronyms are not a symbol of knowledge. Be generous in communications in order to enable shared thoughtfulness.

Teams are siloed. Often, when work is happening concurrently in matrixed organizations, efforts that could have been complementary if leaders had talked to each other become combative. It turns into a competition: Whose agency’s messaging strategy will win out? 

In other instances, agencies themselves are siloed from one another, with no insight, for example, into how creative will translate into PPC or SEO.

How to move across the hands-brain divide: Recognize when an initiative has broader implications and enable cross-functional teams and agencies to communicate frequently and work together strategically. Move from a process-oriented approach to a more iterative one. This will enable you to build a project then launch it, then measure, evaluate and refine it, together. 

With proper nurturing, including context, communication and cross-functional teamwork, your most valuable company-agency partnerships can become a resource for information and problem-solving rather than just creative output.

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