Making the Most of Your Vendor Relationships

Your team is larger than it appears.

January 25, 2018

On paper, our team is comprised of about 30 people. We support the marketing and communications needs for all of Fordham University, including, but not limited to, advertising, print, web management, email marketing, social media, news, media relations, internal communications, and public relations. We’re on the small side for a school of our size, but we do big work, and one of the things that facilitates our success is some stellar vendor relationships.

Apart from a printer and maybe a media buying agency, we didn’t have as many outside partners when I started my career in higher education. In fact, there was somewhat of a stigma attached to relying on an outside agency for many kinds of work, as if it reflected poorly on our skills. Or it seemed an extravagance, affordable only by the wealthiest institutions.

Now, of course, things are different. Budget cuts, efficiencies, and the gig economy have contributed to an environment where partnering with outside experts on a project/contract basis makes a lot of sense, especially when our communications strategies are far more sophisticated, requiring market research, data-driven decisions, and cohesive branding and messaging. It’s near impossible to do it all alone.

But managing a diverse set of external partners poses its own challenges. As an operational expense, expectations are higher. As outsiders, the application of their expertise can easily be dismissed. As temporary contracts, their input/involvement may be short-lived. In the end, success relies on your ability to quickly fuse their skills with those of your team, marry their personalities with yours, and treat them like your own, if only for a limited time.

Here are three ideas on how to approach that process:

1. Lead

Sometimes I find a misperception among our colleagues that hiring an agency to take on a special project or handle some aspect of your business is “set it and forget it.” In reality, managing a satellite team is just as much work as managing your in-house team — the timeline is likely to be much more aggressive, the check-ins more frequent, and the opportunity for revisions less frequent. Establishing and maintaining your leadership role in the project is imperative.

What does leadership look like? First and foremost, it means being present. As hard as it is on your calendar, it means prioritizing check ins, if not by by you, then by proxy. Our best relationships are those where a member of our team meets frequently with their team and disseminates key information and takeaways. And like any new relationship, a healthy part of your conversations should be about the relationship itself. How is this going?

Leadership is also push-back when warranted and advocacy when needed. Our campus-wide colleagues, many of them likely stakeholders, may not be inclined to embrace outside opinions or trust a vendor's expertise, so we must advocate for their place at the table. We can smooth that path by consistently and vocally representing the interests of the university at every step of the relationship, from the contract, to the message, to the feedback process.

2. Let Them In

Quickly bringing your new team members up to speed requires as much transparency as you can tolerate. We are eager to share the best aspects of our schools in the discovery process, but perhaps not so eager to share the pain points, common stumbling blocks, budget realities, and past failures. They can’t apply their best thinking unless they see the whole picture — the good, the bad, and the ugly.

And this holistic discovery needs to be ongoing. They will not know everything they need to know in the first two weeks of a project. A common mistake is treating an outside agency like a triage unit, in and out with a quick fix. We are complex organizations with some complicated problems, and it’s unrealistic to think that anything meaningful can come from a superficial understanding of our needs.


3. Collaborate

Truth #1: They will not get it “right” on the first go. This is where treating your external partner like your own and understanding your responsibilities in the collaboration is paramount. A first draft is a first draft, and there will be many drafts. They will need your input, and lots of it. They are not mind-readers and an expeditious process is one where you are prepared to contribute significantly and be heavy-handed about it.


Truth #2: You may not know what you want. We seek outside help on important projects where the stakes are high. The objectives in the RFP are probably just the tip of the iceberg. Once you dig in on something, they may change, the scope may change, expectations may change. Until it’s delivered, your project is a moving target, so let them help you pin it down.


The best thing vendors bring to the table is a very broad perspective. They can help you see beyond yourself on multiple fronts, including project management, design and creative, trends and strategy. We’d all be better off embracing their wealth of experience with other institutions and starting with a less defined set of deliverables.


We may need a website or a brochure or media placements, but what we really need is a strategy to increase yield or combat declining enrollments or affect reputation or improve community relations. Collaborating on tactics with your vendors is the most effective way to optimize their strengths and to ensure that you are using your institution’s resources responsibly.


Donna Lehmann is the assistant vice president for marketing at Fordham University in New York City.


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