Reasons Agency / Client Relationships Suffer


The relationship between an agency and their client is much like that of two people dating with the intent of being married. Corny perhaps. Not my most thought provoking analogy for sure, but nevertheless, true. There is not a sales or account person (agency side) who can’t find similar the emotions of dealing with a client to that of dealing with a significant other.

As rationale and pragmatic as business should be, it never is. Ego, mood, pressures and personal life all account for how professionals deal with one another. And it couldn’t be more true when it comes to agency and client relationships. What follows are some issues I have seen arise in my tenure in agency life. I am sure they resonate on both sides of the aisle.

1. Poorly written briefs or plans.

Any document that describes work to be done is the foundation of a plan, in many cases it is as good a plan as some will create. Plans that are poorly articulated and don’t describe the business need, constraints, intended resources and desired time line aren’t expressing the intent of the work. Poorly constructed briefs start a project out on the wrong foot. It’s worth taking the time to collect input and work towards consensus in order to drive results.

2. Lack of access to the right person

Often times the right resource is gated, or unreachable. This makes arriving at decisions difficult, or in the worse situations provide a false sense of achievement. Late arriving stakeholders, experts who aren’t consulted and lack of consensus from stop agents all contribute to lowered morale, anxiety and a decrease of stamina. Often not involving people may be done for reasons of urgency or timeline, but in the end someone will be disappointed and that emotion is rarely shielded from a team.

3. Lack of transparency around budget and effort

This one could use a whole discussion unto itself. It can be parsed by: length of relationship, trust, bidding structure and others. In the end the first transactions between agencies and clients ends up feeling like a poker game rather than a partnership. The truly impressive relationships between clients and agencies are the ones where there is healthy respect. Respect that the agency is doing something the client cannot on their own. And respect the client has parameters they have to abide by.

4. Letting the urgent crowd out the important

Deadlines and timelines are how things get done. Without a plan and completion dates we would wander aimlessly and without purpose. That said, there is a right way of doing things and a way of, well, just doing things. Businesses make decisions everyday where shortcuts need to be considered and often the risk does not outweigh the reward. Too often, agencies and clients alike, fool themselves into believing that the simple desire of efficiency and progress is enough to make it so. And often that analysis itself is overlooked to just begin movement itself. This mentality is dangerous and always impact at some level. If you are lucky, it doesn’t manifest in a way that is publicly embarrassing or noticeable; regardless there will be an impact.

5. Lack of criteria for decision making and success metrics

A guy I work with uses the phrase ‘defensible design’ to express the idea that though the subjective nature of putting pen to paper exists, the goal is to be able to trace back to why the decision was made. I’ll give you, this is rare for a creative. What’s unfortunate is that it is rare across most parts of an agency, and even more, across the client organization as well. Though not design related on all counts, the idea of having defensible decisions, at times, seems unattainable. The primary reason being, that the criteria to make that decision was never established. Or, my favorite, was established and never communicated. Not often is this last scenario nefarious, but sometimes it is. Often times, in the digital world specifically, the criteria of budget and timeline are too large to exist alone. There are a hundred decisions that contribute to on time and on budget. Each of those too need to have their own criteria for decision making. Each of those too, require a metric for success.

Standing something up on a URL, launching a social channel, purchasing online ads, translating content – these are not achievements that are completed alone. It takes people. And it takes their skill. Working together isn’t easy, it’s hard. It takes empathy, trust, the benefit of the doubt and a shared vision. When one of those fails, the others have to be strong enough to wait for it to return. If they are all weak we suffer as a team and our stamina lessens. Our desire to perform grows soft and we start backing away from one another.