Here’s why a good client-agency relationship goes both ways

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Clients. We love them, sometimes we hate them. They are what keeps this industry going – the makers of the creative sector, in a sense. Without them having needs, agencies wouldn’t be offering solutions; it is a business relationship based on mutual benefits, like any other. And yet, perhaps stronger than elsewhere.

How do you build a successful client-agency relationship? How do you retain your clients? What are the best approaches? All of these questions surface periodically in the industry, but even more so as a global pandemic hit the sector last year, leading to budget cuts and all sorts of issues on both sides.

The creative landscape has changed. Clients have new needs. Can we blame them?

What do clients want in 2021?

I read just the other day a certainly interesting piece about what clients want in the wake of the Covid crisis. What will be their needs in the new normal, what they will be focused on, and why. The article collected a number of voices from the industry – which was undoubtedly informational and useful.

Turns out that clients still care about staying relevant. The pandemic has showed us all how fast things can change and how consumer behaviour can be affected in an instant by circumstances out of our control. In this challenging new scenario, agencies and clients have worked to remain on top of the consumers’ heads throughout all this time, by embracing empathy and new social causes to drive brand awareness.

It is during this time that clients also realised how important it is to be effective and stay simple. Fortunately, authenticity is becoming a new buzzword in the industry and we are all looking to be more transparent. This can only help advertising in the long run, as campaigns become more human-centred and less focused on just standing out for the sake of it.


Image credit: Grace Nuttall

It also shouldn’t surprise that clients will be looking for purpose-driven ideas. Last year was a bonfire of social causes popping up here and there (rightly), for one reason or another. Governments were increasingly focused on helping the healthcare sector and informing the public about the current challenges, and meanwhile, protests around the world reminded us all about the importance of fighting for your own communities and rights.

It is universally acknowledged that agencies should focus on all of this and more to create memorable and meaningful projects for their clients. This is what clients want now, and agencies should comply.

Yes, but what about agencies?

Except they shouldn’t. Not entirely, at least, and not if they’re not buying it. We spend a good deal of time talking about what clients want, and often forget what the creative and advertising industries truly care about.

A good, healthy agency-client relationship goes both ways. There are too many problems to address in the current dynamics and the solutions are there for agencies and clients to adopt now. Clients shouldn’t just expect agencies to be the most pristine, perfectly splendid and silently docile business partners out there. Authenticity goes both ways. And if clients expect agencies to be more transparent, outspoken and honest about their processes, they should lead by example.

Clients clearly have the upper hand here, and I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. They are in a position of power, and most of the times, they know that.

The problems

There is a general lack of feedback in the advertising industry. This is especially true on the client’s side, but agencies are sometimes guilty of that too. Without feedback, we can’t thrive or learn from our mistakes. Though some agencies do adopt annual assessment forms to build better relationships with their clients and collect feedback once a year on the general state of things.

The problem of feedback however truly stems from the pitching process. With 2020 throwing a literal virtual wall between client and agency, conversations have sometimes become more diluted and allowed for more bullshit and less honesty. Not that the situation was much brighter a few years ago, mind; when it comes to unsuccessful pitches at least, too often clients leave it with a simple “Thank you for your time” or “We don’t feel that the creative / idea was strong enough” without caring to elaborate further. We may feel like it is a polite way to reject a business partner; but in truth, that unsuccessful agency is really just back where it started.


Image credit: Wunderman Thompson

Agencies should be entitled to know how they performed compared to the competition, and why they were not chosen in the end. But for the sake of “confidentiality”, clients don’t disclose this kind of information – which in truth leads to another issue.

The lack of transparency in the industry is, frankly, quite appalling. When clients choose to not disclose information, it is really their way of saying they don’t trust you with it – even outside of failed pitches. And yet, as business partners, transparency can only help you thrive. How much easier would it be if all clients were clear from the onset about what budget they are willing to invest in a project? Instead, they often wait until you come up with a brilliant idea, only to then downsize it and chop it around because of a lack of allotted budget. It would save a great deal of time to both parties if clients were clearer about budget from the start.

This kind of poor communication carries over most or the entire relationship between agencies and clients, and it doesn’t help either party to succeed together – which is what these partnerships in the industry should be all about. It is true that agencies should ask the right questions from the start, but clients should be willing to answer them. If they willingly hold back on some information, then disasters may (and will) happen.

The solution

Judging from everything I mentioned above, it may not sound simple to find a solution to all this – but in truth, it is simpler than it could ever be. Clients should start trusting agencies more. They should be willing to value more their services (so perhaps there won’t be an entire team doing overtime for a pitch, and agencies wouldn’t be as understaffed), but most importantly they should be more transparent.

The solution is actually quite simple: clients should start trusting agencies more.

In a year like 2021, with the dawn of a new normal and agencies starting to pick and choose their fights, creative services providers will start saying no. The Covid crisis has shown us all what we truly want from our professional lives, one way or another – and this will reflect in business hierarchy and business models over time. As the makers of the industry, clients should be the ones taking active steps towards the change they so adamantly wish to embody – starting from their relationship with their chosen agencies.

With regular communication, more transparency and humanity, willingness to leave constructive feedback on both sides and a solid process in place to build the partnership over time, client-agency relationships can only improve from here. But it is not only down to the single agencies to change how the industry behaves.

So let’s stop blaming them for all that's wrong and awful in the advertising world.

Header image: Anna Ivanyuk


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