Getting the Most Out of Your Agency Relationship

There are some struggles that are so legendary they are clichéd… dogs vs. cats. East vs. West. Suits vs. creatives.

But the eternal battle between clients vs. agency is one that affects our industry that deserves some particular attention. Agencies clearly have some gripes about bad clients (as seen in the YouTube clip), and no doubt clients have their fair share of gripes about agencies too.

But since we work in an industry where each side is dependent on the other, what can be done to improve the situation?

Having worked on both sides for an equal amount of my working career, here are six observations I’d make about how both sides can get the most out of their relationship.

Business, not games. We are all engaged for professional reasons, and looking to drive business results. Yet both sides are guilty of playing a lot of games, and wasting a lot of energy working out how best to play it. The client must have some extra money hidden away – how can I unlock it? How can I get the agency to do more of what I want without paying for it? Do we present what we think the client wants, or what they will buy? These mind games are encouraged by neither party being upfront, and playing their cards too close to their chest. Whilst this may seem smart, all it does is result in distractions and suspicions, rather than better work.

Get money off the table early. There’s nothing that damages relationships as quickly as the topic of money. Agencies always want more money, and clients always want more value. By not being honest and frank from the start, this just creates ambiguity, mistrust, and a complete misalignment of expectations. This applies to both sides – clients need to be clear about what the scope, budget, and expectations are; agencies need to be clear about how the client’s budget will be responsibly allocated (with no hidden surprises). Guessing games (“tell me how much you think it should be”) just wastes everyone’s time.

Time is money. As a professional services model, agencies get remunerated based on time spent. One way or another, clients end up paying for this, either directly or indirectly. It is therefore in both sides interests to ensure that time is not wasted in endless rounds of review, long meetings full of “breathers” (so called, because that’s all they contribute), or changes that create a lot of work for little marginal difference. An inability to clearly articulate what changes are being requested is one of the biggest time wasters – but it’s also up to the agency to ask the right questions and not make assumptions.

Think symbiotic, not parasitic. A common mentality is that a relationship is a zero-sum game: for one side to get ahead, the other side must suffer. The reality is that a prosperous agency is in the client’s best interests (attract better talent, access to more resources, better quality work), and a prosperous client is in the agency’s best interest (more sales leads to better budgets and better projects). Is your relationship structured for mutual benefit, and aligned goals? A healthy partnership is one where both sides are focused on helping each other grow.

Speak the same language. This is not about linguistics, but it is about viewpoints. For example, the language of success in the digital world is about click-through rates, engagement time, bounce rates, and other esoteric measurements that didn’t exist a decade ago. The language of client success is comparative sales lifts, brand equity, and market share growth. How does one relate to the other? Without a common, agreed language, both sides end up resentful that the other is not appreciative of results.

Know your type of partner. I’m a strong believer that you get the partner you deserve. We all have those friends that drift from one bad relationship to another, and hooking up with inappropriate people. We all know they end badly, because it’s not the right relationship to begin with. In a professional relationship, this is all the more important (you can’t even use puppy love as an excuse!). As a client, if all you want is an agency to produce what you tell them to – then a creative agency may not be appropriate. Likewise, agencies need to decide what sort of clients they want to work with – and learn how to say “no”. Otherwise, if you are willing to be with anyone because they have money… well, don’t act surprised if you’re not respected in the morning.

So how are you managing your relationships?

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.