The Insights Blog

How to onboard your new agency for greater success

How to onboard your new agency for greater success

MIG Guide

The meetings have wrapped up, the SOW has been negotiated and the client and their brand-new agency are eager to start work. The review process has concluded and now they are in a rush as the client’s timeline is already strained. New work needs to be on air as soon as possible. What happens next can determine the eventual success or failure of the relationship.

In many cases the client provides some hurried objectives and vague directions. No marketing brief has been created and there is no formal briefing discussion with the agency. Often the guidance is given by managers doing their best but without direct input from senior leadership. The timelines are urgent, there is so much to do and the agency is expected to not only figure things out on their own but to deliver award winning work on rapid timing and a limited budget. The agencies that find themselves in such a situation are at a disadvantage before they have presented an initial round of work.

There is a better way to kick off these critical relationships: with a perfect onboarding that sets up the agency, and therefore the client for great success. Here’s how to run the perfect onboarding.

The ideal onboarding session gets the client and agency teams off to a great start by:

  • Sharing the client’s vision and expectations
  • Bringing the agency up to speed on the business and key marketing objectives and strategies
  • Sharing client and agency processes and identifying key workflow intersections
  • Briefing the agency on initial work needed
  • Crafting a 30/60/90 day action plan with clear accountabilities
  • Creating a genuine bond between the working teams

We have helped design countless, successful onboarding sessions and have identified many best practices that clients and agencies can use to enhance their odds of success. Some very specific “kick off” activities can help put the relationship on the right footing from day one. The onboarding is often a multiple-day session with straightforward deliverables: to ensure strategic alignment, get the new partners off to a faster and more successful start and enhance the likelihood of success. As FIG’s Judith Carr-Rodriguez once told us:

“An onboarding and immersion session is everything – where you not only take a deeper dive on the business, but you take a deeper dive on one another as people.”

The Onboarding Session

We have found the following work sessions and activities to be especially beneficial:

How We Fell in Love: We often kick off the onboarding with the client sharing what it was about the agency that caught their attention, intrigued them, and eventually convinced them they had found the ideal agency. This is often a heartfelt tribute to the agency’s commitment and enthusiasm for the client’s business and the recognition, by the new client, sets a great tone for kicking off the relationship.

The Work that Won: The agency likely won the business because they convinced the selection committee that they were the right strategic and tactical partner. The agency is proud of their effort and this is an opportunity for a much larger group from the client to see the outstanding thinking and ideas that helped the agency win the business.

Company Vision and Goals: A senior executive often shares the company’s vision going forward and how important the agency’s work will be to achieving that vision. There is also often a Q&A opportunity so that the agency can hear from company leadership firsthand about key, timely topics.

Business, Product & Customer Knowledge: The client team shares critical business background and operating processes concurrently with their new partners. This often includes multiple sections covering key topics like product, channels, consumer research, the industry and operations. Key subject matter experts are generally invited from around the company to share their in-depth knowledge and experience.

The Initial Briefing: The client undoubtedly has an urgent campaign that needs development and this is the perfect time to formally brief the agency. The client shares the marketing brief, covering the business, marketing and campaign goals, target audience, business and competitive background, key marketing strategies and critical timelines. The presentation and a hearty discussion should prepare the agency well to kick off development of their own creative or media briefing that can strategically guide their agency teams.

Working Relationship Onboarding & Process Sessions: Several important “team on-boarding” activities are usually planned, aimed at:

  • Jointly defining key business operating norms (briefing and approval processes, etc.)
  • Jointly defining key interpersonal operating norms (how quickly are calls/emails returned, what are expectations regarding written versus oral reports, etc.)
  • Jointly defining expectations and success and expanding that discussion to include the attributes to be used in performance assessments
  • Defining processes for team members to give each other effective feedback
  • Ensuring philosophical alignment regarding project processes and cost management
  • Defining the optimal project management and communications structures and processes

The 30/60/90 Day Plan: We facilitate the client and agency teams through a detailed 30/60/90 day plan with key deliverables and accountabilities. The teams leave the onboarding knowing exactly what needs to be accomplished, by when and who is responsible during the initial 90 days.

Marriage Vows: We wrap up the onboarding with the client and agency teams collaborating on their “marriage vows”: a written set of commitments to guide the relationship.

At first, I thought the marriage vows were a bit much, but I was SO wrong! To end a thorough and information-intense 3-day onboarding with a fun and meaningful exercise that summarized everyone’s vested interest and commitment to Viator’s brand ambitions was, in a word, lovely. The vows married (pun intended) the objectives we need to achieve to be successful with the human side of what it takes to get there. The best part now? When things get rocky or the process gets stressful, we go back to those vows as an honest reminder that we are all doing our best. – Carmela Luzzi, Viator

After Hours Fun: A joint client/agency dinner helps the two teams get to know each other better in an “away from the work” context.


A well-planned onboarding effort is one of the finest investments a client and agency can make in their future mutual success. A strong onboarding effort helps the two teams create a solid foundation for a quick start and increases the odds of success. Some benefits include:

  • Greater alignment from day 1
  • Clarity of expectations
  • Mutual understanding of essential processes (briefing, review process, etc.)
  • Shared partnership guidelines (what does COB mean, how quickly are calls returned, etc.)
  • Deeper knowledge regarding how each firm works
  • Specific 30/60/90 day activities and assigned accountabilities
  • Establishment of “marriage vows” regarding each team’s commitment to the other’s success

As our friend, FreshDirect CMO John MacDonald noted:

“Having a directed onboarding process with a new agency benefits everyone. It brings together two organizations together formally setting expectations over specific time periods as well as structures their new ways of working. However, to me, the best thing it does is it helps two
cultures start to get to know each other. To learn from each other, and to start the trusting process so the best results can be obtained by both.” – John MacDonald, CMO FreshDirect

Let us know if you have any questions! We love to see clients and agencies succeed together.

Robin Boehler is a co-founder of Mercer Island Group. Robin has managed hundreds of agency searches and relationships for businesses of all sizes and types, like Ahold Delhaize, Starbucks, American Century Investments, PEMCO Insurance, PetSmart, Seabourn, Avis Budget Group, Sargento, Ulta Beauty, and dozens of other blue-chip firms. She also has consulted with a wide array of agencies including Digitas, Periscope, W&K, GS&P, Havas, Cactus, DNA, and many others. Robin is a frequent speaker, having presented and keynoted at events sponsored by the BMA, the 4As, AMI, and others.