Perception is Reality In the Agency-Client Relationship Game

by Susan Zweibaum on February 13, 2012

I came across this poster in one of my LinkedIn groups and it made me wonder – if these perceptions are accurate it may explain the generally dysfunctional relationships clients and agencies have with one another.  It may also explain why it appears so difficult to get things done in an agency.

I have spoken before about how to improve these relationships, but I guess we need to go to the beginning and ask why do these negative perceptions exist in the first place and what you can do to correct them.  Maybe by understanding the perceptions better you can improved the relationships.  I’m going to start with the client perceptions since it always seems to come back to the client.

The Client

You didn’t know your agency thinks that way about you?  While not all agencies think this way about their clients, I have known plenty that have.  I recently spoke to a former vendor who informed me that people within her organization refused to work with one of their clients as this specific manager drove them to drink.  The client had no idea!  All the agencies literally danced on their desks when she left the company.  These negative perceptions exist because the clients often treat their agencies like servants instead of partners.  They made demands and expect the agency to jump.  They change their minds which causes significant rework by the agency.  On top of it, many client managers delegate down to their junior brand managers who have never been trained in how to manage an agency or how to get the most out of them (and it isn’t browbeating or demanding obedience).  The client thinks they know everything.  Realistically, they may know more about their product than their agency, but it is their responsibility to train them so they can provide the best solutions for their stated goals.  They rarely do that effectively and they don’t know more than the agency does when it comes to advertising and promotion.  Most clients are generally poor communicators and don’t know how to write an effective creative brief that will help the agency deliver what they want and need. 

So, the solution is simple – communicate well, treat your agencies with respect and try and walk a day in their shoes.  If the agency isn’t a good fit for the organization, it is better to cut the cord then make everyone miserable and if you love them, show them the love.

The Account Manager

OK, I have to admit it.  Whenever my media or advertising agency came for a meeting from NYC, I always felt inferior.  They were always dressed perfectly and they all seemed to be more attractive than me.  Maybe it was the NYC factor, but they all seemed to exude that agency attitude.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I loved them and had a great relationship with them, but I just wasn’t as chic.  They felt they had had an image to project and, in reality, they did it well.   Reality is, the client just needs to change their attitude about the perfectly dressed and chic account team.  (I tried and eventually got over it.)

 Now, as it relates to the internal folks’ perception of the account team – there are multiple reasons.  First of all, there is the idea that shit rolls down the hill.  The client makes demands and asks for unrealistic deadlines, the account manager says they will make it happen and making it happen means additional work for the creative and planners under often unrealistic deadlines.  They are pissed at the account team and the account team is annoyed at them for being so uncooperative.  Secondly, there is the role that the creative teams plays vs. the account teams.  See, the creatives like to give the account team a bad rap because it seems that all the account team wants to do is to squash the really cool, really big idea!  It really isn’t fair as the Account Team is putting the realism in the idea.  They are trying to translate how they feel the client may react to the idea and they have to monitor the overall budget.

 Solution:  Be realistic with your client as to what is achievable in order to not put your creative and planners in a difficult position with you or with them.  Treat your creatives with respect and acknowledge what you are asking of them.  Finally, creatives throw big, brash ideas out there which may not mesh with the client’s needs.  Give credit for the great ideas, but work with them to find appropriate creative solutions.

 The Creatives

Where would we all be without the Creative Manager?  They are the energy, the ideas and they can make everyone frustrated.  From the account person’s perspective, the creative team doesn’t always follow the creative brief well and these great ideas don’t always fit the client’s goals.  I realize the creative team thinks they do, but the ideas are big and not always realistic (and the brief not clear enough that it leaves things open to interpretation).  The account manager should know what the client likes and how they will react so when they give that constructive criticism to the creative it is not unrealistic for the creative team to think the account manager just doesn’t get it.  Then comes the hissy fit by the creative team and that is why the planners look at the creative as children.

 The client loves creativity and when the creative is big, bold, achieves their goals and is in their budget they can’t help but love the creative team.  However, I can’t tell you how many times the creative idea doesn’t achieve the goals or doesn’t fit the budget.   That’s when the client decides that the creative team was probably smoking dope when they came up with this brilliant idea.  Nonetheless, I will give the creative team one out on this one – the ideas can only be as good as the direction that comes out of the brief and if the brief sucks the client can’t blame the agency for the off-track concept.

 Solution:  The creatives need to get off their high horse and realize that good ideas come from many places and that the idea is only as good as its ability to affect the public’s perception of the product and meet the client’s goals.  The client needs to make sure they have a well- written creative brief and are open to new ideas.  Finally, the account teams need to treat the creatives with respect and learn to offer constructive and useful input.

 The Planners

It is the planners job to bring it all together, think strategically and work with the client to help determine the best strategic direction for the creative.  They are there to really help ensure that there is a strategic link to the brief.  If they have a good relationship with the client, then there can be that buddy feeling.  If they don’t work well, then the planner will all but be ignored.  Sort of like the friend who has been shunned by the group.  The creatives have the same feelings about the planners that they do about the account team.  They bring reality into the situation and the creatives want to be free to come up with the coolest idea.  The account team thinks the planners are just there to make their lives nuts and get frustrated about who really is running the show.  The planner pulls the whole presentation together – the creative, the strategy and the execution – all in nice tidy bow that the client will buy into.  Truthfully, the planners are often in the toughest position in the middle of all of these competing internal interests. 

 Solution:  The Planners need to make sure they communicate completely what they know to everyone on the team.  They need to do their job without strong arming everyone and they need to make sure they keep everyone on track – with respect.  Additionally, everyone else has to give the planners a little slack and realize they are doing their best to keep it all on track.

 Do you see a pattern?  It is the idea of respect and communication.  That is why I think the relationships are often so dysfunctional.  There is a lack of good and effective communication.  Both the client and the agency need to be trained on how best to communicate with each other effectively.  The client needs to get off their pedestal and the agency (everyone at the agency) needs to learn how to truly meet client expectations by helping to set them.  It is ok for an agency to push back if it is in the best interest of their client, but they have to know how to do it and the client has to learn to be open to something other than what they thought was correct.  If everyone does these few things then maybe, just maybe, we can have better functioning agency-client relationships and agency-agency relationships.


This is a follow-up to my recent post on the same topic, but I am tackling it from the agency perspective this time.   If you’ve read my post on the client perspective some of the same themes are valid here as well. (see below) 

Open and honest communication is the backbone of the relationship, but there are some other key tips to offer when building that all-important client relationship.

Decision Makers Are Rarely Key Contacts

This has to be one of the most frustrating situations an agency has to deal with.  Two scenarios emerge: 

  1. Your contact is the Marketing Services Manager – The role here is to filter information between the brand teams and the agencies, provide internal consulting to the brand teams and manage the overall agency activities.  This client role can be highly beneficial to an agency if the manager has strong brand relationships and is a good communicator.  They are the ones who speak the agency’s language and can provide further insights into brand comments or direction.  However, this person is almost never the final decision maker – that would be the brand team. 
  2. You primary contact is a junior brand manager – OK, now you have direct access to the brand team, but these people are often too junior to make any final decisions and usually don’t have the strength of strategic knowledge.  You often have to spend a lot of time training them as you try to execute a program or creative.

So, what are the solutions to both scenarios?  First of all, allow time in the timeline for longer decision-making.  Trust me, brand managers don’t want to be rushed into decisions, but they don’t want their programs delayed because of their own corporate indecision either.  Secondly, clearly communicate needs both verbally and in writing.  Always follow up with a meeting recap and key next steps in writing.    Additionally, initiate broad team meetings once a month or at key decision points that include the key decision makers to ensure that they can ask direct questions and you get unfiltered feedback. 

One warning:  Be careful of too much process and need for senior-level approval.  For example, I knew of a Marketing V.P. who felt he needed to approve all creative.   A process was started that had large creative approval meetings with all key approvers in the room.  In theory this makes sense and follows my suggestion above, but because of scheduling conflicts, these meetings did not happen as often as they needed, and the V.P. was approving creative that they just should have let the brand director approve.  It frustrated all parties involved and hurt the strength of the relationships between the agency and the brand teams.  In these cases, you can’t change the process of the V.P., but you can work harder to establish strong ties with those under the executive to ensure you are moving along the right path.

Build Relationships across All Levels and Disciplines

Following the above tip, build relationships with all levels of management, even outside of your primary contacts.  Your biggest ally may be the Marketing Services Manager, so do all you can to strengthen and build this relationship.   They provide direction and feedback on your performance as an agency and can smooth the way for issues relating to billable hours or project issues.  I realize that agencies understandably want visibility with decision makers and that sometimes these marketing services individuals can be seen as roadblocks.  Unless they have control issues, what seem like roadblocks are more often reactions to how much access the brand teams want to the day-to-day process.

Your primary contact may be a junior brand manager or brand manager, but make sure you also get to know the Brand Director.  They often have unique insights into senior management that you might not get otherwise.

Always Put It in Writing

I wish I could tell you that you can always trust the client to do the right thing or admit to having said or approved something, but unfortunately that isn’t always the case.  What’s more, it always comes down to the ultimate decision maker, and they can change the direction of a project whenever they want.  The easiest solution is to always – and I mean always – put things in writing.  Meeting recaps, effects of changes on the budget or billable hours, feedback on creative, etc. – if you have a conversation that impacts what you are doing or the number of hours you are working on a project, then make sure you know the client is on the same page.  While I believe that a certain amount of informality is important, there are times when process is crucial to achieving open and effective communication between the client and agency.

For example, I once had a client who provided direction to me verbally and followed it up in writing.  That’s great, right?  Not exactly.  In this case, I made the mistake of not making sure that I clarified my interpretation of this direction and providing an example of what I thought he wanted.  While I went beyond the initial scope and gave a more strategic presentation, the client still wanted all the basic information details in a particular format that hadn’t been clearly outlined to me in his direction.  The end result was that I had to go back and create a spreadsheet of all the backup data, spending more time than I had budgeted for.

Push for Creative Briefs and Clear Direction

Not every company can deliver a good creative brief, but they are so important if you want to ensure that you are delivering what they want.  Insist on having the client walk you through the brief so that you can ask questions and fill in any missing information.  Feel free to push back on anything that doesn’t make sense or is undeliverable.  Most clients want you to ask questions and dig deeper.  Express any concerns, because being realistic will be your key to success.  Unfortunately, sometimes the client just doesn’t understand what a realistic deliverable is.

If a client doesn’t want to write a brief themselves, then do it for them.  Have the same conversation you would have if they were presenting you with a written brief and then translate that conversation into a brief that you can then get their approval on.  Again, it is all about making sure you are both on the same page. 

One additional note, I have found many cases where the client doesn’t have a true creative brief format.  In these cases, I have provided to them a format that has worked for me and let them adapt it how they need to. 

Set Boundaries and Realistic Expectations

This may go against traditional agency thinking, but you can set boundaries for when you are available – unless you need to deal with possible crisis situations (as in PR).  Just because a client calls you at 7 p.m., doesn’t mean you need to respond to them at that moment.  I have often left an email or message for my agency in the evening hours with the expectation that they would respond the next day.  When they respond at that same late hour, I often wished I had waited.  I didn’t want them to assume that I expected them to be working at that late hour as well.  I was probably more sensitive, having worked on the agency side at one point in my career.  However, this attitude helped to strengthen my ties with the agency because they knew I understood what it was like from their side. 

We have all been there when the client has asked for something with a ridiculous turnaround time.  You want to hang up the phone and yell – I know I have.  Be honest with how quickly you can actually get it done without killing yourself or your team.  If you need additional time to collect information, be realistic, otherwise the client will have the tendency to get angry or frustrated when you don’t deliver.  As the client asking for the quick turnaround because my boss has asked for it, the last thing I wanted to hear was it couldn’t be delivered.  I didn’t want to tell my boss it couldn’t be done.  However, everyone wants to fulfill expectations, and it is easier to tell my boss that it can’t be delivered if there is a solid explanation for the delay.

In conclusion, if you look at both of my posts on the topic of building strong client-agency relationships you will see two key themes:

  • Communication
  • An understanding of how the other entity views things

The client is the ultimate factor in this relationship building, since it all revolves around them.  The agency wants the client’s business, needs to work with them to keep the business and gauges their success from the success of the campaigns they deliver.  So, while the client plays a role in making the most of the client/agency relationship and contributes to its success, how well an agency understands the client, their needs and the players within the client will greatly impact the agency’s chances of success.

Both parties need to make sure they are communicating well, are committed to working together and take the effort to understand the other’s point of view.  If you succeed in doing this, the results will be productive and effective marketing campaigns – and a long, fruitful partnership.


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