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Breaking Down Agency-Client Barriers in the Pandemic

By: Jason Gitlin, Associate Creative Director, RAPP SF

Though we all remain in our individual remote working spaces, the team at RAPP San Francisco has actually been breaking down the barriers between agency and client, exploring new ways to work in a more collaborative, agile way.

When the lockdowns began in March 2020, our office was already used to working with remote employees and conference-call-only clients. Combined with a generous work-from-home policy, many of us would perform our jobs from home a few days a month and knew what to expect in making it work in our domestic settings.

When it came to our interactions with clients, in-person meetings were rare, and we generally presented our work through conference calls and screen sharing. Video calls tended to be reserved for one-way companywide meetings. Technological and security limitations also kept most of our client interactions voice-to-voice rather than face-to-face.

Our biggest challenge as the lockdown continued through the spring was finding out how to collaborate as a team in a new reality. There’s just something that clicks when you get together in the same room to concept and ideate. It became clear — for me, at least — that the loss of a physical presence brought with it profound changes. I found that I rely on a lot of intangibles (like nonverbal clues) to get a sense of how my co-workers are feeling, how a project is coming along, how it’s being received, and what might be needed to make the work work the best it can. As a collective, we also lost the spark of creative spontaneity that comes with sharing the same space.

Some New Solutions

As it did around the globe, our in-office culture shifted overnight. Video calls became so frequent that I often was on Zoom most of the day. As many organizations learned, it was hard to stay productive while meeting all those video-call obligations.

After a while, we began to meet to brainstorm ways to make collaboration as efficient as possible, given the inability to walk up to a co-worker's desk and ask a quick question. You could send a message through the variety of collaboration apps we use, but it was hard to predict when you might get a response. When I’m at my desk in the office, I can look across the room and see who’s there. An online status is no guarantee someone is actually available and paying attention.

We came up with a few solutions. One of the ways we made the demands of video calls more manageable was being more selective with invites and participation. Also, making sure that everyone who needs to be on the call can be, so we don’t waste time or add yet another meeting to the schedule.

This shift in the economy of meetings became a welcomed catalyst for change in client interaction and collaboration. In my agency experience, there’s usually a barrier between agency and client, with carefully set interaction points over the life span of a project. Within the agency, we typically work in set silos of responsibility — creative with creative, strategists with strategists — with team-to-team collaboration mixed into the process. But as the pandemic raged and we became individually isolated, interactions became more frequent (internally and externally), with a broader layer of clients and collaborators. With video, they became more personal and immediate. The walls between agency and client shrank.

At the same time, we were all living in our own remote workspaces and operating within our own individual silos. Though it can be confining, I think it has allowed us the opportunity to bring a more authentic self as we Zoom commute day in, day out. The ability to leverage both the fierce individuality of the agency teams as well as the client teams gives everyone a more personal, individualized stake in the work.

Some Lessons Relearned

There’s a lot to learn and leave with from this ongoing experience. The ones that stand out the most to me are:

  1. Kindness is still badass.Before the lockdown, this had been the mantra of the San Francisco RAPP office. It’s baked into the DNA that drives collaboration and our interpersonal interactions. It’s not specifically related to the COVID changes, but kindness guides the way we work with each other and with our clients. And as we all go through our individual challenges, empathy needs to guide everything we do.
  2. Barriers are B.S.It’s not a new approach, but we don’t have to maintain the typical walls between agency and client or between creative and everyone else. It’s taken me a while to come around, as the traditional structural silos were ingrained in my education as an advertiser and marketer. But despite my concerns and instincts, closer co-creation can (and does) work. People can change. Who knew?
  3. Economizing meetings is a must.Not everyone needs to attend everything, but be sure to bring the decision makers in early. Zoom is exhausting, and we all need the brain space to do our best.
  4. Prioritize jumping in with both feet.It took a bit to feel comfortable bringing incomplete and WIP creative to clients for collaboration, but it’s the unexpected, oddball ideas that move things in new and different (and exciting) directions. Some work. Some don’t. But by giving new thoughts and ideas the light of day, we get a great opportunity to express our fierce individuality. Why keep it hidden from clients? It’s what we’re all about.

At the end of the day — and, hopefully, the lifting of restrictions that keep us from working together — I am confident that RAPP will always find new ways to elevate the work and the way we collaborate together. Our resilience and adaptability keep shining through the endless weeks and months of this health crisis. Whatever unexpected events or challenges wait around the next corner, RAPP is ready.

Just give me a moment before I’m back on camera; I need to shoo my cat off of my desk.