Agency-Client Relationships: It’s like a marriage (well, sort of…)

David Bernardino
Jul 24, 2019 · 4 min read

It’s the middle of summer and I’m working at the home office with “Yacht Rock Radio” playing The Eagles “I Can’t Tell You Why” in the background. Listening to that song got me wondering why it is that agency-client relationships can become fraught with issues. Not to toot my own horn here, but having spent most of my marketing career on the “client side” leading agency relationships of varying degrees and now being on the “agency side” of the table, I feel I can (and should) offer a unique perspective on this particular subject.

Image for post
Image for post

The way I like to think of agency-client relationships is similar to how one would think of a marriage. Similar to a marriage, there’re various stages to it. At the beginning, it’s like dating. Both sides are on their best behavior — trying to see if there’s the potential for chemistry with each other. There may be an RFP or a pitch process, with a bunch of meetings sprinkled in between for good measure. Both sides are also trying to see if there’s a fit and if both can envision working together. This can be a fast process, especially if the client happens to be looking to either add or to replace someone on their agency roster. Assuming both sides check the right set of boxes, an SOW, MSA, retainer, or some other arrangement is formalized — bringing both parties together.

Now that the agency’s part of the brand’s eco-system, it’s time to get to work. But before both sides can roll up their sleeves, there are two areas of opportunity where the client and agency can establish ground rules in order to ensure that the relationship gets off on the right footing. These two areas are:

  • Expectations Management: Agencies need to get real about what the client will get, based on the degree of rigor the client’s willing to invest in. If the client wants to invest heavily in market research, outline the learning plan. If it’s the exact opposite, document it. Regardless of the path that’s taken, this needs to be captured in a brief and re-iterated in every agency-client interaction involving that initiative. Without a brief, how does each side know what the other’s truly working on and how the work is getting accomplished? How can both sides measure success? Without a brief that both sides align to, how can great work be created and be evaluated with the necessary rigor and discipline that these initiatives demand and deserve? Invest the time and write it down.
  • Measuring Sticks: Assuming the client’s briefed the agency on the “go-get”, use the brief as the measuring stick. As the branding gurus Czerniawski and Maloney taught me at a copy training class many years ago, when I was a young marketer at Gillette, the brief is the contract that the client and the agency agree to execute against. It’s also what the agency uses to create the work. So, when evaluating creative, go back to it. Did the creative bring the agreed-upon strategy to life? Is it attention grabbing? Does it have good branding? With a clear brief, the client can comment strategically, while the agency can respond in a logical manner.

If the above steps are done effectively, then the agency and client have clear line-of-sight towards the strategy, measures for success, timelines, etc. With this clarity, both sides can get to work both efficiently and effectively.

Now, imagine you do the above steps and the work that results from the brief isn’t “up to par”? This is another area where how things are handled can either strengthen or derail an agency-client relationship. We’ve found that asking and discussing, the following question, in a collaborative manner can help diffuse an often-tense situation:

Does the creative that’s been presented bring the aligned brief to life?

Ask this question and have an honest discussion on whether this is true or not, and why.

In that debate, you probably get to two potential situations:

  • Executional Problems: This happens when the brief was executed appropriately, but it still does not resonate with the client. In these instances, have the agency do more creative exploration and potentially bring more ideas that bring the brief to life. The agency can also look at different executional elements that can improve this (e.g. dramatization of the benefit, copy, etc). Again, both sides should look at how the brief is brought to life because both sides believe (and hopefully have data to support that) the messaging strategy makes sense and is valid.
  • Strategy Problems: This happens when the team realizes that the initial strategy that they used to inform the brief is problematic. This can (and will happen), as more information, a new perspective, or some other thing happens which causes the team to revisit the original messaging strategy. If this happens, the team (especially the client) should own this and not fault the agency. Have an honest discussion as to why the strategic direction needs to change and collaboratively develop a new brief for the agency to execute against.

What this all boils down to is that both the client and agency need to be transparent and honest — treating each other like true partners, similar to how one handles a marriage. If clients and agencies make the investment to nurture these relationships and act with trust, candor, and ownership (of the brand), great business results will follow. Because at the end of the day, the best agency-client relationships are partnerships. And through them, come the best work.

If you have questions about this, want to “nerd” out on this, or need help in this area, drop me a line — we’re here to help.


Building brands that build the world.®

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch

Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore

Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store