The agency-client relationship is always a hot topic among marketers and the tone of the conversation is always dependent on your experience.
If you are a client that has had terrible engagements with agencies, then you are naturally negative and dismissive of what an agency can do for your company. If you are an agency that has struggled to please clients and dealt with high turnover of your client base, then you also are likely to feel jaded.
A recent study on the agency-client dynamic, appropriately called Mad Men to Sad Men, reveals the frustrations of both clients and agencies in a landscape that is fast-paced, fiercely competitive and crowded with an exploding number of specialists, tools and technologies.
The study summarizes what agencies are saying:
- Feeling less valued
- Struggling to deliver better, faster, cheaper
- Drifting downstream together – getting deep in the tactical weeds, away from business goals
- Collaborative competitiveness – too many cooks
- Not getting rewarded fairly
And what clients are saying:
- Agencies seen as selling, not listening
- Not understanding their world
- Not understanding the new world – failing to keep up
- Not understanding their customers
- No longer delivering the talent needed
- Not collaborating effectively
Clearly both sides in these types of engagements have valid frustrations that may lead to breakups. The industry average for length of a client-agency relationship is 3.2 years, and I would argue that the average is shorter in the small-to-midsized market where clients simply move fast and do not have the patience to wait it out if they feel things are not going well.
The good news is that the agency-client relationship can work successfully for everyone involved. I have seen it happen again and again, both within our agency and with many of our agency friends who share stories of long-standing client relationships that are fruitful, fun and focused on mutually great outcomes. There are even 40 known client-agency relationships that have lasted an average of 22 years!
The clients and agencies in long, positive relationships have mastered the secret to success...
The Relationship Is a Two-Way Street
Clients AND agencies play a key role in a successful engagement.
Role of the Agency
Your agency is the one getting paid, so the pressure is on them to deliver. They need to:
- Ask the right questions to get to know you and your business as quickly as possible.
- Set clear goals with you about what success in the engagement looks like.
- Be honest about expectations, timelines, response times and deliverables. Having these conversations early on can help set the stage for success.
- Work strategically and respectfully with agreed upon budgets and be fully transparent and proactive when projects / work will be out of scope.
- Bring in the right set of talents and skills to deliver top quality work.
- Own mistakes when they happen—because they will—and learn from them.
- Show flexibility in being able to respond to shifting priorities and business opportunities.
- Be proactive AND responsive to deliver a great client experience.
- Push you out of your comfort zone with new techniques to try, and new ideas to explore in your marketing.
- Serve as an equal partner, not a vendor who takes orders. This means there will be disagreements and debates in the relationship and as long as the goal is your company’s success, it’s all good.
Role of the Client
As the client, yes you are paying the bill but that does not mean you can sit back and expect success. You need to:
- Participate fully in the client onboarding process so your agency has access to the experts and information needed to learn about your business.
- Set clear goals with the agency about what success looks like for the engagement.
- Be honest with your feedback on work delivered. If you love it, say so! If you hate it, say so – and do not panic, give the agency time to refine and deliver what you want, especially in the early days of the engagement.
- Be respectful of agreed upon budgets and project scopes, understanding that if you want more, something has to give in the existing agreement or be added.
- Acknowledge that mistakes will occur on both sides and that most will be easy to recover from – it’s marketing, not heart surgery, right?
- Understand that your agency team is an outsourced partner with other clients to serve. The best agency teams will make you feel like you're their only client, but they simply cannot be immediately available in every situation.
- Escalate things beyond your account manager if you ever feel not heard or uncomfortable with a situation. The right agency will have leadership that can step in to help get things back on track.
- Be open and receptive to new ideas, out-of-the-box thinking. While you may ultimately decide an idea does not fit your business, you want to encourage your agency to bring you the latest and greatest.
- Choose an agency that you envision as a partner with a valued role in your business – you’ll see that is exactly what they can become!
I love this article that outlines the four types of agency-client relationships because it forces both agencies and clients to take ownership of their role in the engagement, to see that the relationship is a two-way street. And when referring to the best relationship, the great-agency-great-client combo, Anselo Ramos writes:
It looks like advertising heaven, but it’s not. This is actually the hardest relationship. There are disagreements and discussions, fights and frustration, crying and cursing. It’s like a real marriage. Not every day is great, but every day you make a conscious choice to stay together in the name of great work.
Here’s to great work!