Mark Bowling
Oct 19, 2016

Badly behaved clients: how to deal with them

“Your father’s died and you can’t attend the meeting? That’s a shame but … totally unacceptable.” How can we change this dynamic?

Don’t fight fire with fire: Accept an unhealthy client-agency relationship and you have no one to blame but yourself.
Don’t fight fire with fire: Accept an unhealthy client-agency relationship and you have no one to blame but yourself.

Facebook and LinkedIn are rife with laugh-out-loud anecdotes about marketing clients behaving badly towards agencies. Outrageous presumptions; short deadlines; unclear directions; inhuman expectations. The stuff clients put us through. And all of us, in the industry, what do we do? We laugh, share a meme, laugh again and then sigh. But then what? Have we learned anything? How do you deal with poor briefings and turn confrontational situations into a positive experience?

Set expectations on work deliverables 

I once had a client demand I perform a task I was barely capable of doing and that was not in the scope of work. The client even demanded I do this for free. Yelling was involved. Trying to avoid conflict and maintain some semblance of relationship, I did the work. The client never thanked me, and didn’t even pay for the original contracted work.

Learning: I should have, from the beginning, requested, or developed myself, a detailed scope of work that I could reference back to, and thereby avoid misunderstandings and set ground rules — what’s paid, what’s not, and what’s off limits. Setting the scope up front prepares you to say ‘no’, politely.


Agencies sometimes receive and accept terrible briefs. Not all of them, but many. And you know what? Agencies are to blame for accepting them. Briefs with five objectives, conflicting goals, short turnaround times, specific and questionable expected outcomes are commonplace. Why? Again, it boils down to expectations. Clients are busy and often have little time to write briefs, so they become last-minute rush jobs or as valuable as afterthoughts.

My learning: Ask for the client brief ahead of time with clear deadlines and itemised lists of what will and will not be included. I often find myself writing (or re-writing) client briefs, making it actionable, reasonable and agreeable between both parties. If your excuse for poor quality work is a poor brief, then you have only yourself to blame.


Client: “Please keep changing the work until I like it. I won’t know what I like until I see it, so I can’t tell you what I like because I haven’t seen it yet. These don’t work. Can you show me five more options?”

When I was working in New York, an upset team member came to my office late at night at his wits’ end over a budget recommendation. “What version are you on?” I asked. His response: “28.” 

I reviewed the work. It wasn’t an issue of work quality, but communication. I called the client, a former agency colleague, and told him we couldn’t proceed until he told us his spend. “US$48 million,” he said. And that, kids, is how you stop trying to guess what a client wants — just ask directly.

Learning: Have the gumption to ask clients for what you need, set limits on the number of revisions, and be strict about delivering or receiving constructive and directional feedback. More than five versions of a project means communication is bad, or the brief has changed.

Working out of hours

Years ago, a client with whom I had a very good relationship called me at 5pm on a Friday and asked me to work on a project due on Monday. Yet the very well-respected MNC for which he worked had a code of conduct requiring respect for personal time and responsibilities.

“That sounds great,” I said. “But, is it fair that just as you’re leaving to enjoy your weekend your request has taken away my weekend? I was just heading out as well. Shall I cancel my plans?”

Pause. “Point taken,” he said. “Absolutely correct. It’s unfair of me to ask. Enjoy your weekend. Let’s talk Monday morning.’ 

Learning: Our jobs in this industry are to find the humanity in consumers and connect to it. How is that possible when it’s not practised in our everyday work environments and interactions with clients? You owe it to yourself, your clients and your colleagues to perform at your peak during business hours. If you work on the weekends, you’re drained and ineffective during the week.

What really works

Despite these points, however, the only person to blame for a poor relationship between an agency and the client is you. Whether you’re a client or agency, senior or just starting out, you ultimately need to take responsibility for building and maintaining a positive relationship. 

Focus on setting guidelines for how you work together and build up a communication channel that allows both collaboration and dissent, but most importantly avoids direct conflict and does not reward bad behaviour.

Mark Bowling is head of strategy for PHD China


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