You could argue that the quality of the client-agency relationship is the single biggest predictor of success. Get it right and you’ll enjoy fame, leads, customers, and awards. Get it wrong, and you’ll waste heaps of money, miss incredible opportunities and probably end up hating your job. It’s just not worth letting this relationship fail.
What is a client-agency relationship and why is it important?
A client-agency relationship is the tangible and intangible agreement between an organisation (the client) and the company that is providing marketing, video, animation, search, advertising, or public relations services (the agency). The relationship starts when the client briefs the agency, continues through the pitch and selection process to when the work is awarded and a contract is signed.
But the relationship goes much further than this, to cover how the client and the agency work together. This includes what the deliverables are under the agreement; the rhythm of meetings, reports and interactions; how ideas are brainstormed, agreed and implemented; how much collaboration there is between the two parties; how feedback is delivered and how the contract ends.
The client-agency relationship is a really important determinant of how successful the work is, how happy the client is with the results, and how much the team members on both sides enjoy going to work in the morning.
What makes a good client-agency relationship?
Both the client and the agency have an equal role to play here in the development of a successful client-agency relationship. And the best relationships share some common characteristics: trust, collaboration, chemistry, mutual respect, accountability, and honesty.
The agency’s objective is to help the client achieve its goals. And it’s important that the client works with the agency to facilitate this.
The agency’s role
- Learn the client’s business. In order to deliver the best work, an agency really needs to understand the client’s business, their objectives, their USPs, why their customers have chosen to work with them and what the client needs from the relationship.
- Set clear KPIs. These should be carefully thought out and they should be realistic, achievable and agreed with the client in advance. It’s highly unlikely that the agency will deliver outstanding work that leaves the client delighted if success hasn’t been defined.
- Hire and train experts. Clients choose agencies with specialist skills, networks and knowledge. And so it is incumbent on the agency to ensure that their team is up to the task.
- Have the right systems in place. The only way an agency can deliver a consistently high level of service is by having the right systems in place. Good systems (from filing to approvals to onboarding new team members) prevent costly mistakes.
- Get it in writing. Whatever piece of work the client agrees to, make sure they agree to it in writing. This ensures that everyone is on the same page. If an approach has been decided verbally or discussed in a meeting, the agency should follow up with an email outlining their understanding of what was agreed and don’t start the work until this has been confirmed by the client.
- Report back honestly. Keep the client informed with regular reports. These should cover progress towards KPIs, but they should also include qualitative feedback on how the project or account is going. If a journalist hated the pitch, the agency should tell the client and tell them why. If the designer thinks their brief is too boring for the target audience, hold a focus group and feedback to the client.
- Be creative, enthusiastic and opportunistic. The best agencies are constantly challenging the status quo (such a cheesy phrase – we found it used a million times online when researching this piece so just had to include it), looking for opportunities to delight their clients and just generally loving the work.
The client’s role
- Trust the agency. For an agency to do the best possible job, the client needs to trust them enough to share their confidential information with them, knowing that they will keep it confidential (remember there is a contract in place with a confidentiality clause).
- Help them. The client knows their business better than any agency ever will. The best in-house marketers will recognise that this can be a mutually beneficial relationship – working with an agency can be invaluable in helping them achieve their marketing and career objectives. They know that both parties will benefit from a great client-agency relationship, so they help their agency out. They remove roadblocks and help them access the right people in their business to make the marketing strategy a winner.
- Provide honest feedback. When you spend a lot of time with someone there are bound to be differences in opinion. Couples quarrel, and (likely) so will clients and agencies. The client-agency relationship isn’t always a smooth one, and bumps in the road are to be expected. Be honest about any issues that arise, as that’s the only way for them to be resolved.
- Be responsive. Clients should respond to agency queries and give them feedback on ideas. Approve the copy they send over or argue with them about it.
- Pay on time. Chasing clients for money is so awkward. There is a contract, and the agency is meeting its end of the bargain. The client should meet theirs and pay on time.
- Respect the business. Agencies are businesses too, which means they can’t gift their clients’ unlimited resources to work on disorganised campaigns. There will be a certain number of hours or certain deliverables in the contract and there will be some room built-in for flexibility. But it won’t be unlimited.
- Respect the agency’s relationships. Agencies spend years building great relationships with journalists and influencers. These relationships are key to that agency’s ability to deliver their work – but they can be easily damaged by clients’ not showing up for interviews, being rude or not delivering on a promise. That affects the agency’s whole business.
Things both the client and the agency should do
- Socialise. Socialising is important. It builds trust and rapport and gives the agency insight into the client’s business that they might not get otherwise.
- Be human. Recognise that whichever side of the client-agency relationship you are on, you are dealing with human beings on the other side. These mere mortals might put the occasional foot wrong, but be generous, graceful and polite in how you deal with them.
- Let the relationship evolve. A good client-agency relationship should never stagnate. It should grow as the client grows, and evolve to keep pace with changes in the marketing landscape.
- Be realistic with budgets. The agency shouldn’t over- or under-sell its services and the client should compensate fairly. Use our guide to PR costs as a basis for working out budgets.
- End the relationship like a grown-up. Even good client-agency relationships won’t last forever. Things change. Companies change. Agencies change. Requirements change. Budgets change. Sometimes the chemistry isn’t right. Or maybe the brief just needs a refresh. Whatever the reason for either party needing to end the relationship, do it with grace. Start with a phone call. Follow up with an email. Thank them. And work like grown-ups to reach a happy conclusion.
What factors may hinder agency-client relationships?
You can usually spot well in advance when an agency-client relationship is set to fail. Here are some of the most common warning signs:
- The brief is too loose. If the client doesn’t know what they want, there is no way that the agency will know. Clients need to nail that PR brief: What are the objectives? What is the budget? What is the context? How will success be judged?
- There isn’t enough collaboration. If the client appoints their agency and then steps back to await results, or if the agency runs a creative marathon with the brief without understanding it, the relationship will fail. The client is the expert in their business. The agency is the expert in its discipline. The best results come when these two areas of expertise are brought together.
- Someone pretends to know more than they do. No reasonable client expects their agency to be experts in all parts of their organisation and industry. And no reasonable agency expects its client to understand the technical ins and outs of their specialism. It’s OK to say ‘I don’t understand,’ or ‘Can I book a product demo to really understand what your software does?’
- Everyone’s too polite. Sometimes, or rather quite often, someone needs to hear the truth. Maybe that story the client has their heart set on is just never going to catch the media’s attention. Or maybe the agency didn’t quite understand the client’s messaging in a piece of copy. Or someone misspoke in a meeting. Whatever it is, be polite, but not too polite – communication is key and it’s essential that feedback is honest and clear.
Ben Beckles is a media relations consultant for TopLine Comms. He is passionate about promoting mental health and well-being in the workplace.
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