Ban The SLA (Just for the first six months)

02 Jul 2021

The first few days and weeks of a new agency/client relationship are crucial. There’s so much to learn, set up and kick off, with oodles of passion, excitement, and expectation about what can be delivered, and by when. Both parties are stepping into the unknown, and whilst having a Service Level Agreement in place from the word ‘go’ can feel like a safety net to ensure the right progress, our advice is don’t.

There’s just no way you’ll have enough insight into the relationship to put together an effective SLA. At least not to start with. And there’s certainly not a ‘one size fits all’ solution.

There are too many variables to simply cobble together an SLA and assume it will solve all the inevitable challenges that need to be addressed (and oh boy, are there lots of those) for a few key reasons:

1. It’s just too soon

We’ll kick off with the biggest issue: the reality is that in the initial weeks and months of a new working relationship, everyone is feeling their way. Both the agency and the client will be brimming with assumptions, expectations and preconceptions about how things should work.

Facilitating success in these early stages is about reconciling these three things with the reality of what will work best. There’ll be some idea of what’s expected from the pitch process, but now it’s time to get specific about language, communication, process and working cultures to pin down and agree exactly how things will work best on a personal and practical level.

These things take time, and whilst much can be pre-discussed and a working hypothesis kicked off, some actual rubber (and real work/projects) needs to hit the road to identify what will truly work best. Relationships need to be nurtured and nourished for all to deliver their best – after all, we’re only human. And that takes a little time.

There is an inevitable period of embedding, but an SLA works on the basis that all these practicalities have already been worked out: all black and white, and definitely no grey. The reality is that until you’ve built that mutual, common understanding, an SLA just assumes too much about what will be effective. This makes it more of a tick box exercise than a useful piece of work to drive efficient delivery of agreed outcomes. Making these presumptions can also lead to a couple of other pitfalls posed by hasty SLAs…

2. SLAs need to be mutual to be effective

Many of the most valuable business principles are rooted in mutuality, and the idea that working collaboratively is better than working in silos. Take something like ‘great work starts with a great brief’. It’s undoubtedly true, and it’s based on a crucial factor: someone needs to provide a great brief for someone else to do great work. Input (the brief), and output (the work). Mutuality.

This is another area in which SLAs fall down – particularly if they’re put in place rapidly, before either party really has their head around how things will work. They’re great at setting out the stall for what an agency will provide, or how they’ll behave and work – but they rarely, if ever, establish the same kinds of “input” expectation and, therefore, framework for the client.

A one-sided SLA is already unbalanced when it comes to establishing what a great working relationship will look like. It hardly screams or re-enforces collaboration. To ensure an SLA is mutual, you need to factor in time to really allow the working dynamic between the parties to be tested and where the pressure points are.

3. SLAs are best suited to ‘things’

The final problem is a broader one, which just makes things worse if the SLA has been “set-up” too quickly. If, for instance, you’re a paperclip supplier, then an SLA from the start is an easier job and an essential task. It will outline precisely how many paperclips you will supply, on what date, and what size they will be. Excellent! But if you’re a creative partner (and I use the term creative in its widest sense) then the same rules don’t apply.

Yes, you can define things like deliverables and turnaround times. Yes, you can guarantee a status report within X number of hours and response times to a query. But aren’t these great examples of measuring and defining what we can, rather than measuring what actually matters?

Of course, KPIs need to be agreed at the start – that’s at the heart of the commercial construct and contract – but in the context of an agency relationship, how the teams deliver the output is actually creative in itself. It involves creative people, creative mindsets, and original thinking to consider – and therein lies the problem. SLAs are brilliant at helping to define ‘things’, but they aren’t well-suited, if bluntly crafted, to quantifying strategy, creativity, problem-solving, collaboration – and this is where the real magic happens.

The alternative: Channel all that energy…

So, the big question: what’s the alternative? Throughout the first few weeks and months, both the client and agency will need to be nimble, flexible, and proactive when it comes to tracking how things are going.

Setting an initial roadmap of deliverables and milestones will provide the basis for the ‘core ingredients’ of your SLA – the scope, scale, and pace of the relationship and the output – but it’s up to both parties to be reflective in how these things are working, and then use this reflection to make positive, iterative and continuous evolutions. For example:

  • Is work falling within the agreed scope?
  • Is the sign off process agile enough?
  • Are briefs fit for purpose?
  • Is there clarity on what percentage of the work should be ground breaking innovation (requiring more resources), and how much will fall under ongoing ‘drumbeat’ output?
  • Are things taking as long as predicted, and if not, what’s getting in the way?

As work is delivered, the specific “core ingredients” or topics for the SLA will become obvious, especially if they are flagged and captured through regular client/agency check-ins and wash up meetings.

Wash ups are an essential part of the embedding phase to reflect on what’s working well, and address things that could be improved – for both parties. How often these take place will vary depending on the pace of the client’s business and complexity of scope – typically there will be more in the initial stages.

What’s crucial is to ensure these sessions are ‘essential to attend’ by senior and day to day teams alike, and not as ‘nice to attend if there’s time’. Use hindsight questions to ensure the focus is always on looking ahead – and definitely don’t look back in anger. Blame is such a waste of energy, resource and time. Revisit the roadmap, celebrate your wins so far, and then work out what actions you can take to address live issues and fast track progress. Work closely with your Procurement colleagues throughout to link to the commercial contract and construct.

Crucially none of what we have been advocating requires an SLA. Instead, when concluding the embedding phase, we suggest you collate all the different topics into a master SLA “menu”.  With this, you’ll have an informed place from which to consider, prioritise and set clear targets against – and even better, you can be fully confident that when the master SLA is communicated, the teams will just ‘get it’, as they have effectively “created” it in the first place.

So please, forget the SLA to begin with. Focus on finding out the things that matter, make positive, iterative changes along the way to test the boundaries of what’s possible, and identify the real barriers to delivering the pitch intent and ambition.  Once you have this in the bag, a mutual, meaningful and measurable SLA will practically write itself.

About The Author

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Vicky Gillan

Lead Consultant, Upskill

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