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What makes a great agency-client relationship? 5 tips for success

  • by Martin Dixon
  • 7th Aug 2017
    • Strategy

I was recently asked what I believe makes a successful agency-client relationship. It’s a good question, to which I responded with a question of my own. How do you define or judge success?

Should the relationship be judged on results, or on creative output? Or is it down to the longevity of the relationship? It made me think back to the most successful relationships I’ve had with clients over the years. Why did some work better than others? Is there a magic formula?

In thinking about these questions I came up with five recommendations, drawn from experience, that should help clients and agencies get it right:

1. Make it a partnership

I realised that the more successful of these agency-client partnerships… were just that, a partnership – based on trust, openness, honesty, good communication and empathy (including knowing and understanding each other’s strengths and weaknesses). As an agency, this is our utopia. We don’t want to be kept at arm’s length, we want to become an extension of every client’s team.

Sounds obvious, right? You’d be surprised.

However, the clients I’ve worked with who understood this and instilled the mindset in their teams ultimately got the best out of the relationship and were rewarded with longevity, continuity, excellent client service, superb creative work and great results!

2. Start with trust

Trust is obviously something that needs to be earned over time, but it must start with the client showing the agency that they’re willing to trust them. Make your agency an extension of your team and be completely open and honest with them from the outset. Take the time to embed your agency, help them understand your business, what is expected of you and what the business expects from them. Let them know what pressures you and the business are under, your targets and the areas where you need the most support.

I’ve met some great marketing directors and managers in my time, but no one can know, and be good, at everything. Don’t paper over the cracks. Being open from the start will only help to strengthen the relationship and make the agency feel they can be open and honest in return. A good partner challenges the other partner and this will bring out the best in both parties.

3. Embed the agency early on

This will allow them to pull together the right team in terms of experience, expertise and head count. Having the right team in place from the outset sounds obvious, but talented as us agency folk are, we aren’t mind readers, so we can only work with the information we are given.

There’s also an onus on the agency to be proactive during the early stages, steering the client by asking the right questions and taking the time to find out more about their industry, personality and preferences. This means the agency can align the work and approach to the client, rather than pushing a way of working which doesn’t fit.

4. Don’t avoid the budget conversation

Openness also extends to conversations about money, so having that all-important commercial discussion early on is an essential part of starting a new relationship. Don’t avoid the subject… and be honest. Any commercial agreement should truly reflect what you’ll require from your agency.

You have a budget, so share that with your agency – and tell them what your expectations are. Then allow them to provide their view about how realistic this is in line with your objectives. When this doesn’t happen, it can make for a very bumpy journey. It will also inevitably mean that every project or brief is overshadowed by a conversation about money. This can potentially wear everyone involved down, make them lose sight of the bigger picture and ultimately have a negative effect on the creative process.

Agencies should be completely transparent on costs and rates from the outset. Every agency has a different approach, but I’m in favour of breaking down costs as much as possible so the client can see what they’re getting for their money. Yes, every agency will have a rate card, but this only tells the client how much a specific service or person will cost them per hour. It’s important to make it relevant to the client and their budget.

Where possible, the agency should cost up some example deliverables and projects to help the client see how the rate card translates into what they require to complete their project or marketing plan. In my experience, taking this approach makes every money-related conversation down the line much easier.

5. Communicate!

Keeping this openness throughout the relationship will keep it strong – but good communication is just as important. We’re all busy, but it’s important to take your time to respond to each other… even if it’s just a ‘Thanks for your email, I’ll come back to you shortly’.

The channel of communication also makes a big difference. In my experience, a client relationship maintained mainly over email will fizzle out quite quickly. It’s also an easy way to create unnecessary friction because emails are ignored, missed or misunderstood. I’d always encourage anyone to pick up the phone instead, or use a combination of both if needed. Agencies and clients should make the time to meet in person as much as possible – face-to-face meetings are always much more productive. At the very least, try to arrange a weekly phone status catch-up between key team members.

Lastly, no matter how good any partnership is, over time it becomes easy to start taking each other for granted. Remember to empathise and put yourself in the other person’s shoes every so often. Small things matter and remembering to show appreciation for the other person’s efforts occasionally will go a long way.

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So, there you have it, my response to what I believe makes a successful agency relationship. There is obviously no magic formula because every client and agency are different, but in my experience, working as partners and following some of these principles will allow the relationship to flourish. This creates the right environment for the agency to produce the best, most effective creative work and in turn delivers results for the client. Everyone wins!