Working with Agencies: Playing Nicely in the Sandbox


Harnessing the resources that make trade show exhibiting successful is a lot like making a movie. Best case scenario: the cast and crew are assembled; the completed work is critically acclaimed—and everyone moves on to the next project—which may or may not include people from the last movie. Movie making, like trade shows, requires a diverse group of contributors, each with their own skill sets and some more attuned to the trade show medium than others. There are egos involved—or at least strong opinions. And depending on your product or your industry, you may never work with the same team again. You are the director, the producer, the peace-keeper. The leader.

One contingent with strong representation in the trade show planning process—and there may be more than one–is the agency. Not only is it entirely possible that you are working with more than one agency, in the current marketing environment, it’s almost a sure thing. Different agencies come to the table with different perspectives, different competencies, and different experiences. Unless you are living in a trade show never-never land, there will be at least one agency that wants a bigger piece of the pie than you had intended for them to have. As the director, you need to be mindful of the possibility of turf wars and the eventuality that an agency might try to supersede your authority by enlisting the support of your managers or the department that brought them to your attention in the first place. Don’t tolerate this corporate back-biting; this is your show metaphorically and literally.

Going back to basics, your role is to make sure that your company has a successful trade show, that your exhibit looks good, that the exhibit environment promotes engagement through meaningful experiences for the attendees, and that in the end, you can show a positive ROI. Let’s take this a little further: you are responsible for making sure the staff (consider them “extras”) are contributing to the overall success, that the brand or brands in the exhibit are appropriately represented, and that—oh, by the way—you adhere to the established budget.

What are some of the steps you should take so agencies don’t derail your project?

  • Create a plan. Before you meet with anyone, develop a road map that gets you to your destination: show opening. You own this document, and you have every right to insist on the ownership, no matter how much push-back you might get from any agency. You need to be proactive and structure communication that is clear and concise.
  • List the agencies involved and articulate their unique contributions. Develop a scope of work for each, making sure that each agency adopts its contributions to your unique end product: a trade show environment. No one knows this environment as well as you, so don’t let your plan be sabotaged.
  • Call an initial face-to-face meeting. Failure to attend this meeting is a deal breaker. You need to set boundaries at the very onset of the project. At this meeting, insist on transparency, and encourage questions and answers among all the attendees. At the end of the meeting, all participants should be clear about their roles—and the roles of the other agencies. If you sense any red flags at this meeting, like the potential for the aforementioned turf wars, act immediately. Fix the problem, even if that means dismissing an agency. Just a note: concentrating on their phones rather than what is going on in the meeting is grounds for dismissal. Your time is valuable.
  • Share the minutes of the meeting with any colleagues who have an interest in your project or with whom the agencies have a prior or ongoing relationship apart from yours.
  • Adhere to a schedule of regular, relatively short meetings to update the progress of each agency. Online conferences are useful for ensuring that you have perfect attendance. At these meetings, emphasize the nature of the trade show experience. For instance, images that are rendered in a 2-D format need to be used in a 3-D format. Make sure your agencies know that the interactions in an exhibit can be one-to-one or one-to-many. Media presentations need to be scalable.
  • Make the agencies aware of necessary approvals and anticipated timelines. Nothing says futility like a concept that gets a thumbs-down—after weeks of development–from senior management. Building in some wiggle room never hurts.
  • As work progresses, develop an asset management system so you can track the progress. Check in with individual agencies as necessary.
  • The best rule of thumb at the end of this process is to involve your exhibit agency in the final deployment of the assets. They understand the medium. Be prepared for agencies to object or to step outside their boundaries; it happens more often than not. Remind everyone of their specialties—and those of the other team members.

It’s possible for everyone to play nicely in the sandbox, as the saying goes. But if you’ve ever watched kids actually playing in the sandbox, you know that problems arise when someone refuses to share. Assume the best about your agencies and hope that you’re not disappointed.

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