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. Whatever your reasons, working with an agency or consulting partner is different from working with your internal colleagues.

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 five things to consider when building that external relationship:


Advice from Shannon Smedstad, principal employer brand strategist and engagement director

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 Julia Zelenock, employer brand strategist and engagement manager

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 Susan LaMotte, CEO + founder

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.

BottomlineFind 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, employer brand strategist and engagement manager

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.

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.

 On May 9, 2019, at the Employer Branding Strategies Conference, participate in a real, authentic discussion on how to get the most from your agency partners. Click to register.

Susan LaMotte (@SusanLaMotte) is the founder and CEO of exaqueo, an employer brand experience firm, building employer brands and the talent strategies that drive them through research, consulting, and creative and digital execution. Contactexaqueoto learn more about our employer brand innovation, workforce research, and recruitment strategy offerings.