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As we return to normal, don’t let the fear of collaboration take over


Collaboration has been a standout feature of the COVID period, with organisations of all stripes working together to come through the pandemic stronger.

But as we return to normal, we can’t let former concerns about collaborating return, says Michael Edwards, Director at The Northern Affinity – a partner of the Northern Powerhouse.


If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the power of working together for the greater good.

In all my years in business, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a region stand together and support each other as the North did during lockdown. We saw sectors club together to provide support to those struggling, and businesses across the North begin to offer free advice on digital transformation.

It was fantastic, but here’s my concern – will this kindled community spirit be doused as we return to ‘normality’?

It doesn’t need to. Now is the time for businesses to confront their fear of long-term collaboration and start working together more, especially those in crowded sectors such as tech, marketing, and PR.

Agencies can’t hire talent quick enough

The pandemic has accelerated digital transformation across all sectors. Now more than ever, companies require a strong digital presence and so agencies have seen enquiries go through the roof.

But to be able meet this demand, agencies need to hire – usually senior talent who can quickly take ownership of client work. However, the uncertainty of the last 18 months means those in senior roles are more risk-averse and less open to leaving a secure role to start a life at an unfamiliar agency.

What’s more, competition is fierce. With so many agencies hiring, those who are looking for a new adventure have plenty of choice.

So what’s the solution? Working together. I know of many digital agencies who’ve gone down the route of outsourcing expert services and found it a joy. Digital marketing agencies who might not have a PR arm, for example, could look to smaller PR consultancies to provide specialist services to their clients.

With PR becoming ever more digitally led, the skillsets of the team often match those of digital marketers. Similarly, agencies can look to freelance consultants for immediate expert support.

Freelancers are self-sufficient, productive, and used to being able to take hold of a project at short notice. What’s more, their experience means results for clients can be almost instant.

Utilise technology to free up time

The role of marketing has evolved to become highly analytical, and decisions need to be data-driven.

To remain competitive, marketers must understand the entire user journey, intent, behaviour, and experience. Similarly, tech companies have continued to evolve, to keep offering sophisticated insights to allow marketers the chance to effectively target their audiences.

Collaboration between these two industries has therefore become critical. But it doesn’t need to end at software.

Any marketer will tell you that a lot of time and effort goes into research, reporting and communication. The good news is there are several tech firms in the North who collaborate with agencies to provide support.

Take Coact, which works with agencies to understand what needs reporting to clients and then prepares it externally. Likewise, Socialsendr takes the lead on creating, scheduling, and posting editable social media content – something agencies do a lot of.

Of course, these are just two examples and may not suit everyone, but my point is if we look outside of our own businesses, we notice opportunities to collaborate.

Learning to share

Collaboration doesn’t have to be service-focused. We know the pandemic has changed the way we work, and many companies and agencies now favour a hybrid-working model. Employees work in the office when they require collaboration time with colleagues, and employees work from home when they require that added flexibility. This is where office sharing could work.

Those offering complementary services, such as marketing and PR agencies, may be good office sharing partners and employees could benefit massively from being around different creatives on a regular basis.

In the past, people have kept how they work close to their chests, but times have changed, and we need to move away from being afraid of our competitors.

When we’re busy, it’s easy to get stuck in the same daily routine, and you forget that there could be a better way of doing something, and new tools which could save time and money. Being around other like-minded people offers a fresh perspective and might just give you the inspiration required to do things differently.

As well as physical space, companies could also share expenses, such as development, marketing, or software. For sole traders, SMEs and start-ups, software is a big expense. Software required by PR agencies, for example, is extremely costly – sharing the costs can free up budgets for CPD or even charitable actions.

Driving innovation

To succeed in business, you must continue to make new connections and expand your network, even if this entails forming relationships with companies in different sectors.

In March 2021, Costain, a smart infrastructure solutions company, and software giant Microsoft announced their strategic partnership. The partnership’s aim is to digitally optimise the way in which UK infrastructure is designed, delivered, and operated.

Costain intends to leverage Microsoft’s cloud-based software to integrate their systems. With both companies being market leaders in their own respective sectors, no doubt this is a collaboration which will revolutionise the UK’s infrastructure.

If those at the top of the business food chain can do it, why can’t we?

As we head out of crisis mode and approach the ‘new norm’, we require new processes and procedures to adapt to our new ways of working. If your workforce is working remotely, technology is vital to communicate, inform and engage with those employees. Marketing, tech (and HR) can work together to shape our new ways of working.

Collaborating successfully

There isn’t a one-size-fits all way of collaborating, with each business being unique. From my experience at the Northern Affinity, I believe that there are some common traits displayed by companies who have managed to achieve successful collaboration:

  • Information exchange – it’s vital to discuss any issues and communicate openly. Schedule regular meetings and updates, and deploy technology for information sharing.
  • Trust and transparency – there needs to be absolute trust and transparency between all team members.
  • Mutuality – working together for the benefit of each other. This is achieved by setting a purpose and establishing clear objectives which is shared by all members.

I’ve also often found that businesses which share a similar culture, and those companies who drive collaboration from the top will make it work. Only by working together and combining our expertise will we enable our businesses to grow quicker, drive innovation.

Let’s lead the way from the North!

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