Not Dead Yet: The Agency-Client Relationship

Travis Biechele
Oct 15, 2019 · 4 min read

Those of us in the world of marketing and advertising have heard it for years. The “agency of record” client relationship is dead. Sounds apocalyptic, right?

This sentiment stems from the growing tide of transactional relationships that many businesses seek from agencies today. They contract for one campaign, a season, rebranding work, a new logo. The longitudinal, long-term strategic alignments of old seem to have fallen by the wayside.

Sure, the “Mad Men” days of three-martini lunches and decades-long working relationships may gone…but that does not mean that brands and companies cannot align with agencies for times spanning years, not just months or quarters. (They can even still enjoy each other’s company over cocktails too.)

The key is simple: An agency-client relationship must be mutually beneficial.

To some, this may read like an “of course” statement. However, consider some of the reasons for the decay of the agency-client relationship over the years:

The Client (about the Agency)

  • The agency’s ramp up period is so, so long.
  • I have no idea what I’m paying them for.
  • Their fees are exorbitant and arbitrary for the work they produce.
  • They act like they are always right.
  • Take our feedback poorly or don’t always incorporate it into the work.
  • Their timelines are excessive.

The Agency (about the Client)

  • They are so behind the times. How can we ramp them up in time?
  • They complain about our billables, but how are we supposed to get paid?
  • We went way over on time for our last project and need to make it up now.
  • They don’t understand or appreciate the rationale behind our work.
  • Their feedback takes forever and is far too subjective.
  • Every project must be completed “yesterday” and to perfection.

These may seem cynical, but they are all too common. In some cases, there is abuse that perpetuates the statements. Agencies mask their fees to milk profits. Clients fail to take enough time to understand complex communication strategies. Agencies refuse to “lean in” to their clients’ industries and fall short of delivering great work. Clients cannot appreciate that, often, the agency “deliverable” is their time and expertise.

There is also an awkward power struggle between many agencies and clients. The fact that the client pays the agency for work does not give them the right to domineer or command authority. It’s the same reason you should not berate a server for a mistaken order at a restaurant. The reality is, we’re all human.

On the flipside, an agency must recognize that their work with a client might only represent 10% or less of that client’s total work week. It’s only natural that they take longer to provide feedback, come to the table with an incomplete perspective, or take mental shortcuts to understand the nuance behind complex strategic deliverables.

The good news is, there are steps any client and agency can take together, at the onset, to ensure that their relationship is as long and fruitful as possible.

1. Ask deep, probing questions from Day 1.

Learn each other’s origin stories. Understand each other’s financial history. Appreciate each other’s faults and opportunities for growth. Listen to each other early to pick up on communication styles. It’s courtship at first, but for a relationship to take hold, both sides must get past the initial, uncomfortable and guarded stage.

2. Obtain a clear understanding of billing procedures.

Agree on a monthly fee, hourly rate, or cost for specific services. The Agency should clearly justify all costs that they bill for, always. The Client should set clear boundaries about what they are and are not willing to pay for. Scope creep happens in any project, so set guidelines for how to address and remedy this.

3. Agree that giving feedback is a “safe space.”

This goes both ways. The Client is not the only one with permission to provide feedback. The Agency inevitably will need things of clients along the way, so reciprocal feedback is inevitable. Perhaps most importantly, check emotions at the door. The business world is a grown up world. There is no room for pettiness, but there is ample room for patience.

These are some of the principles that bolster El Dorado Digital. Past agency lives shape our perspective on this one, and we approach each new potential client relationship with these ideas at the forefront.

What has eroded your Agency-Client relationships in the past? What’s made for the most fruitful ones? We’d love to hear from you, so please leave us a comment.

Stories by El Dorado

Marketing, Measured.

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