— Article 05  How to Manage Multiple Partners

How to Manage Multiple Partners Hero Illustration

What do you do when choosing the right agency actually means choosing the right agencies?

You may need multiple partners to complete everything you want to accomplish. It could be the scale of your project is simply too big (or too broad) for one agency, or you may need specialized skills for aspects of your planned project. In our own work as a strategic digital agency, we’ve encountered a few common scenarios in which our prospective clients choose to engage multiple partners to deliver against the requirements of their project:

  • Brand and website: you may prefer how one prospective partner approaches branding, but prefer how another translates brands into digital platforms.
  • Campaign direction and asset production: you may want to work with an agency for more conceptual marketing efforts, while asking a specialist to create the assets, like ads and videos that deliver the campaign.
  • Website design and website development: you may have specific technical requirements, for which your preferred design partner isn’t a good fit. Or you may split up your website development in different ways — one partner is sometimes asked to do all of the development work; in other cases a design partner provides front-end code (which defines how things look and feel) and a development partner provides only back-end code (which defines the content management system and integration of third-party tools).
  • Website and accessibility testing: if you must comply with accessibility standards, you may have a compliance partner with which your design and/or development partner(s) will need to work.

No matter why you engage multiple partners, it’s important to know you’re signing up for additional complexity in your project.

A quick sidebar, though — there’s a key distinction between a single partner with subcontractors, and engaging multiple partners. Subcontractors are managed by the single partner, while multiple partners are managed by you, which means need to you’ll invest more time to make it work.

There are a few key ways to make a multi-partner approach effective:

Ask about multi-partner experience during initial meetings

If you have any sense you might need to work with multiple partners, you should ask prospective partners about their experience with similar situations. You may want to ask questions like:

  • How have you worked with other agencies in similar situations?
  • What have you found difficult about working with other agencies?
  • What would you do differently than your past projects with a similar situation on this project?

In short, you’ll want to hear how they approach sharing responsibility, or if they expect to run the show.

Define roles

Based on what you’ve already asked each to deliver, each partner’s role may seem obvious. That said, each partner will bring experience and expertise that may not be present in your team, and there may be overlaps between the skills of the various partners. You’ll need to ask the partners to help define the details that will eventually connect their work into a cohesive whole. A few examples of those details may be:

  • What partner is responsible for the final integration of work?
  • Will one partner be providing tools (Jira, Box, etc.) for all partners to use?
  • Will partners provide feedback on the work of other partners? If so, what kind of feedback?
  • How will partners stay engaged (or not) after they deliver their final work?

Don’t mistake working collaboratively to define these relationships with asking partners to work it out between themselves. You should be involved at every step of the process — it’s far better for you to be directly engaged with the details of who’s doing what, and staying in the driver’s seat can help you avoid scope creep or blown accountability. Critically, you’ll be able to retain the best overarching view of the project, connecting the work of all of your partners.

Create a shared schedule

A common mistake is to define distinct schedules with multiple partners, and then try to mash those schedules together. A much better option is to work collaboratively with your partners to create a shared schedule for the project, which addresses a few key questions:

  • Are you working toward a fixed deadline, or do you have some schedule flexibility?
  • How are you, the client, engaged throughout the project?
  • What dependencies exist between the partners?
  • What are the risks to the shared schedule? Can those be mitigated?

Lastly, it’s important to keep partners aware of any changes to others’ schedules, so they can update their own plans appropriately.

Share materials

Tied to the above question about tools, you’ll want to provide your partners with access to the same materials, both before and during the project. This ensures your partners are working from a shared understanding — of your organization, its goals, and its audiences.

Materials that can be helpful might include audience research, a project or creative brief, your organization’s strategic plan, user personas, or website analytics and reports. In addition, you’ll need to define how partners will share materials with each other as the project unfolds. For more complex projects, it’s helpful to work with a lead agency to define and produce this set of materials in a manner that will support the needs of other (or future) partners.

Plan communications

Coordinating multiple partners can rely on both meetings and shared tools. While these seem like (and are!) basic project management steps, it’s critical to confirm these details when trying to ensure different partners’ processes fit together effectively. You should define:

  • Who is running regular status meetings? Outline what to expect from each meeting — every participant should know who is scheduling the meeting, who is running the meeting, and how each participant should contribute (or not).
  • Where will you store files, and how will they be named and/or structured? This is an especially critical step for projects where partners come in and out at different points; consistent, clear file organization can smooth these transitions.
  • Who should be copied on emails (or instant messages, or in other communications), from every partner? Make sure you and your partners keep each other in the loop, even if the primary focus is on a single partner’s work.

This may feel like a recap of Project Management 101, but it can be incredibly valuable to invest time in organizing multiple partners before you dive into your work together. Those seemingly simple steps can require negotiation between teams that may be accustomed to operating in their own ways. Addressing these concerns proactively can help you avoid needless friction later.

While we’ve focused on how to manage multiple partners when you engage them all from the beginning of your project, you may also realize that you need to add another partner in the middle of a project. If so, the same guidelines still apply — all of these same practices can be easily adapted to any phase of a project.

When managing multiple partners, your overall goal is to actually remove the sense that you’re working with multiple partners, and instead have a single, cohesive team working to deliver the best results for your organization.

About the project

This series of articles shares what we've learned from 20 years of working with clients. Whether you’re a CMO or a project manager, the Client Handbook will help you find the right agency and deliver value for your organization.