When looking for a possible agency partner, most customers focus on exploring how they will meet a specific brief. The reason for this is obvious and sensible — you need to work out if a group of people have the skills to deliver what you need.

However, in reality, the way that a team works together is far more important than the specific skills or experience they have. This has been proved time and again, but most notably in Google’s re:work study that coined the term ‘psychological safety’.

“As a buyer, the skills / experience are critical but not enough. We used to call this necessary but not sufficient. Or qualifying vs winning selection criteria.” Mike Lander, CEO Piscari

So why do our procurement processes focus almost entirely on skills and experience rather than how a team works together? Most buyers want to see the team as part of the process, but do they ever really investigate how they work together?

The better a team works together, the better your end product will be. This is not a nice to have, it’s a commercial imperative.

Here are some thoughts on what you can do to explore whether an agency team is as stable, trusting and safe as they’ll say it is in the pitch

How to assess organisations

A diversity of perspectives from a range of different experiences is critical in creating a collaborative, effective and psychologically safe team.

However it is easy to fall back on looking at representative metrics such as the number of people from certain backgrounds in a leadership team. If all those people think in the same way and don’t share power with the rest of their team, you still haven’t got a diverse organisation helping create the best solutions for people.

External validation can be a shortcut to understanding. B Corps, or Living Wage Employers, all have to go through various checks and balances to ensure they work to a higher standard than most. However it’s well worth making your own enquiries as part of your agency procurement process.

A few areas to explore / investigate:

Stability of the team

How long people have worked together is the best indicator of how resilient a team is. Stable teams outperform groups that have been pulled together at the last minute every time.

People understand their colleagues, empathise with their perspectives, respect their points of view and ultimately trust each other so they can put themselves in difficult situations, knowing that they’ll be safe.

Some questions to ask:

  • How long have people worked there?
  • What’s the company’s staff retention rate?
  • Do people work on a single discipline or pitch in across the whole product / service ?
  • What are their organisational values and can you give an example of how they have personally lived them? And an example of when they have failed to live up to them?

Recruitment practices

Progressive recruitment can make more of a short term difference to equality than almost any other area of our working lives. By reducing the unequal recruitment practices that have been the norm for years, organisations can find and work with people that would never have thought a role was for them in the past.

“Job adverts are a window into an organisation’s culture and values — if an organisation puts effort into speaking in plain English, sharing salary bands and demonstrating that they value the candidates applying for the job then you know that they are thoughtful about the experience people have of their organisation even before they’ve been hired.” Tess Cooper, Collaborative Future

A few areas to explore:

  • How do they encourage applications from under represented groups — especially for junior roles?
  • Equality of recruitment process:
  • Are they asking for CVs that overvalue previous experience rather than capabilities and attitude?
  • Do they pay for time at interview / tasks?
  • Do they promote roles in under-represented groups?
  • Are they willing to share questions beforehand (if the candidate would like them)?
  • Is there external facilitation of decision making discussion?
  • Do they show salaries on the jobs that you promote?
  • Do they require a degree or degree level qualifications on any of your person specifications?

Equity of the team

EDI policies are required by all organisations so this is the absolute minimum they should have. Some other ways to look at how they operate include:

  • Has the organisation adopted any specific ways to help them make more equal decisions? eg the Teal Advice process
  • Do they have an externally facing company handbook?
  • What organisations will they work with and who won’t they?
  • How do they encourage peoples’ personal development?
  • How do they regularly measure satisfaction and seek feedback on improvements?
  • What measures have they taken to increase the diversity of their leadership team?
  • What is their highest paid role’s salary as a percentage of their lowest paid role?
  • Do they monitor their gender pay gap? If so, what is it? What steps are they taking to improve it?
  • How do they share bonuses across the team?

What flexibility do they offer?

To create genuine equity in peoples’ lives, there needs to be a balance between home and work. Any organisation that is forcing people to come back into the office for a set number of days a week, could rely on structures that don’t inherently trust one another.

That’s not to say that in-person collaboration isn’t valuable, but if it is mandated then you might not be working in a very trusting environment.

  • How do teams respond to changes / requests for adjustments that fit around peoples’ lives?
  • What happens when they change appointments at the last minute?
  • How flexible / responsive are people?
  • What happens when someones’ kids are sick?

Authentic collaboration

Client surveys are always saying that people want to be challenged more by their agencies [Up to the light What Clients think 2021]. To actually do so requires a level of trust between people — to know that they’re not going to be harmed when they do push back against someone with power.

The tone of this genuine collaboration can be set early on in a pitch process though. Some things to look out for:

  • How much are you getting to experience the ways that people work in initial meetings? Are they simply presenting back or looking to workshop with you?
  • Are they looking to collaborate in every session?
  • Do people present as human beings rather than just representatives of their organisation?
  • Do people get along with each other?

Who answers questions in pitch sessions?

Pitch sessions are a difficult experience for all involved. They usually involve a significant power imbalance that sets everyone on edge. There is plenty that clients can do to minimise this imbalance, but few do.

In this stressful environment, it’s worth looking at how people operate as it can reveal a lot about relationships between people.

If one person is answering every single question, then it could be that the whole team isn’t fully involved in the pitch process. It could also mean that the single person dominates the whole group — which means genuine collaboration is less likely. It could also mean that everyone else hates speaking in public but are a tight knit group who play to their strengths.

Either way, you should notice that and draw it into your evaluation.

Measuring purpose

Many organisations say that they want to work for more than profit. The vast majority believe it too. But as ever, unless you measure something, you’ll never manage it.

So what work has your potential agency partner done in understanding the wider impact of their work? Are they measuring their own operation and their clients’ outputs against a broader set of measures?

Frameworks such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals give a great starting point for looking at the impact of work outside of project deliverables.

This is also what more and more people are looking for from their work — so organisations that recognise this, are more likely to get the best people working for them, delivering the best work for you.

Finally, it’s much easier to buy into an agency that has a broader vision than just delivering good, profitable work. So you’re more likely to see a stable, collaborative team that has a sense of purpose built into their day to day.

“People may become disengaged and demotivated at work if they don’t understand, or can’t invest in, the “bigger picture.”” Pink’s Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose Framework

Long term programmes & partnerships

Exploring investments that people make which don’t pay off in the short term is a great way to see whether people put their money where their mouth is. Some examples of projects and partnerships which bring long term benefits could include:

  • Investing in internships schemes for groups of people who traditionally find it hard to get into certain industries
  • Sponsorship of communities of practice for under-represented groups
  • Credible sustainability initiatives such as carbon offsetting or tree planting
  • Mental health support using services such as Spill Chat
  • Engagement with local schools and colleges to encourage new people into their industry

How do they give back to their community?

It’s easy to think of every industry as a collection of competitors trying to outdo each other. In most cases this isn’t true, and if you can help those around you, then the whole community improves its capabilities. Not to mention it’s a much nicer way to work than constantly looking over your shoulder. A few areas to explore:

  • What do they do to help the community around them?
  • What communities of practice do they contribute to?
  • What events do they invest in?
  • How do they decide which conferences to speak at?
  • What educational sessions do they run themselves?

External validation

There are plenty of organisations looking to evaluate and demonstrate that organisations are not just out for themselves. A few of the most popular and what they can show include:

  • B Corp — a detailed evaluation of the way that an organisation operates, requiring a legal commitment to consider people, planet and purpose when making decisions
  • Living Wage — a voluntary commitment to paying people a salary above the minimum wage so that they can actually make a decent living
  • 1% for the planet — represents a global network of businesses, individuals and nonprofit organizations tackling our planet’s most pressing environmental issues.


Venture Capitalists usually invest in organisations and a team, rather than the specific product they’re building. They know that the chances are they’ll have to ‘pivot’ and that the ability for the team to work through adversity is the most valuable asset they’re buying.

Experience still matters — the knowledge gained on working on a previous project with similar audiences, goals or contexts can be invaluable. But if a team can’t come together to use that knowledge, then it’s much less useful.

If you’re running a partner selection process, make sure to really dig into the less tangible criteria that will help you genuinely identify the best fit for you.

Thanks to Tess Cooper of the amazing Collaborative Future, Nikki Gatenby and Mike Lander of Piscari for all their help with this article.