The agency-client relationship defines a lot about our industry. It sets the mood for our day, the tone of our communication with everyone we speak to, the quality of our work.
For agencies, we wouldn’t exist without our clients, and for clients, agencies have the skillsets needed to make a huge impact on their brands. These relationships make and break our day – and often our careers – and it’s vital we manage them with care.
Most of the time, clients and agencies work brilliantly together. We all know we’re aiming for the same thing: great work, great results. And we’re in sync and working smoothly.
At times, though, I think it’s important to admit that agency/client relationships aren’t always brilliant and fun, and that’s OK. Admitting that allows us to think clearly about what makes those relationships great when they are.
And right now, we have to lean into this conversation because, like in so many industries, the marketing, advertising, and media industry is facing challenges around talent.
We’ve just been through a global pandemic; the impact that that has had on people is huge. I’ve talked a lot about the impact on mental health, but what we’re also seeing is a “life’s too short for this” attitude, which is leading people to reflect on their careers, consider whether it’s right for them and, if they don’t enjoy it, people are moving to new roles or agencies and sometimes switching careers.
Partly, this is a reaction to what we’ve all been through. But I’m not sure our industry always does enough to make sure people love being here.
In many ways this is the most exciting time to be working in our industry, with so much change, technological development and possibility.
The opportunity for agency staff to work across different accounts and sectors is horizon-broadening, creative, fun and, when things go well, so rewarding.
But it can also be tough and we need to tackle as an industry the various areas that may well be contributing to some of the talent issues we’re all facing.
We should include the client/agency relationship as a part of that.
Most importantly, if we can celebrate the positive behaviours on both sides, it will help achieve the best work and ensure our teams are thriving.
What makes a relationship great?
For me, the logic is pretty simple. What defines a great client/agency relationship is respect and an acknowledgment that the best client relationships lead to the best work.
Because when these relationships work well and you feel that instant connection, and the relationship becomes an equal partnership of honesty and trust, that is gold dust.
Agency-side, I see it all the time. Teams love working with a client and the work naturally goes up a notch – more innovative because they feel free to suggest new things, and more considered because they love the client’s brand so they have, sometimes even subconsciously, soaked up industry and market knowledge that flows into the work.
Good client behaviours enable good work. To dig into that more and figure out what good behaviours are both on agency and client side, The Client Relationship Consultancy has some brilliant insights that I think are worth reflecting upon.
These are underpinned by its work with agencies around the world and its surveys, TRR and Barometer, which take the emotional temperature of client and agency teams and how they feel about working together.
Agency behaviours that drive client satisfaction
I’ll say now – in case it isn’t obvious so far – agencies and clients need to work together on building good behaviours into a thriving relationship. Good client structures and behaviours lead to the best work, but agencies have equal responsibility to drive that.
As I say, we work in each other’s pockets every day – good relationships are driven by both sides.
The Client Relationship Consultancy talks about qualities such as partnership, understanding, commitment, passion and the working experience as critical enablers, alongside the hygiene elements of expertise and professionalism.
This all makes complete sense... what a client gets from an agency exuding this is passion, skill, drive, hunger and results. Sometimes work won’t land as well as we expected and wanted it to, sometimes miscommunication might cause stresses.
But if an agency is trying to follow the above behaviours, then we all know things will work well 99% of the time.
That said, we work in an industry where achieving that level isn’t just down to the agency alone.
As The Client Relationship Consultancy put it, there are certain client behaviours needed to enable the agency to be motivated, the best version of themselves and to be the best partners.
Good client behaviours and the impact they have
We all know that the best work will come from the trust, respect and motivation that comes from the client and the agency treating each other as equals.
This is what makes a partnership, but in breaking this down, The Client Relationship Consultancy calls out specific client behaviours that enable partnership from their side, such as: seeing the bigger picture and thinking longer term (not in the “weeds”); seeing the agency as a partner (not a supplier); committing to shared agendas and welcoming agency challenge, in the spirit of getting to a better place.
Clients are paying for our service, and we need to deliver. But agencies won’t deliver creative, vibrant work if they feel like a servant under a master. Mutual respect is fundamental.
At MediaCom we are very lucky to have clients who totally understand and believe that. Undoubtedly the past few years have put everyone under pressure in our industry around the world – budgets cut, uncertainty in the market, shifting audience behaviours and so on.
It’s meant that, at times, there is a transactional nature creeping into relationships across the board, and I believe it’s something we should try to pull away from.
In addition to this, we have to look at ways that clients can inspire commitment and passion from their agencies.
Key traits from The Client Relationship Consultancy’s data include: experience in managing and motivating agency team; showing appreciation; and being prepared to take action around unhelpful behaviours.
Some of these are quite small things – saying "thanks" or “good work” takes no time at all. But we all miss these moments and I don’t blame anyone for it.
Given the pace we all work at, it can be hard to be present and, in those moments, call out great work. But I can tell you now, when appreciation or praise comes, it makes such a huge difference to the mentality of the teams.
A big one for me here was that good clients are prepared to take action around unhelpful behaviours. This doesn’t mean coming down on anyone who disagrees with the agency – we’ll sometimes be wrong, and we need to know.
However, taking responsibility for genuinely poor behaviours that could affect the quality of the work is so important.
It’s the same on the agency side. If a client came to me explaining that someone on our side wasn’t holding up their end of the bargain when it came to good client/agency relationships, I’d have that conversation and fix it. It was interesting to me that clients also doing that came up as a key behaviour in The Client Relationship Consultancy’s insights. It’s something I always hugely admire when I see it.
The relationship between client and agency will never be “perfect” – there will always be great moments, rough periods and all that’s in between. But I would recommend anyone working in, or with, agencies to look into companies such as the Client Relationship Consultancy that can help us take a more strategic approach to relationship management and consider the right conversations to be having.
I am sure much of this is obvious, but I wanted to write this piece hopefully to open some discussion and to encourage us to talk about this openly.
Agencies can be frustrating. Clients can be too. But we’re all focused on achieving the same things – mutual success and growth.
Josh Krichefksi is global chief operating officer and EMEA chief executive of MediaCom