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How to avoid client-agency relationships going wrong

How to avoid client-agency relationships going wrong

By Kerry Glazer, CEO of the AAR, the UK’s leading consultancy in advising marketing clients in search and selection of agencies, contracts and remuneration and agency relationship management.  

In a tough economic climate, a good relationship between client and agency is vital for health, wealth and happiness.

As budgets get squeezed and redundancies impact on both parties, we look at what tips the relationship over the edge, how to avoid a split and offer some partnership principles for establishing and sustaining a healthy client:agency relationship . 
The first 30 days are critical, the first 100 the deal breaker. Once the euphoria of the pitch has died down, and the harsh reality of delivering the work to time and to budget kicks in, the pressures on the client:agency relationship begin.

Research conducted by AAR amongst leading decision makers on both the client and agency side showed that the majority of those questioned believed that most relationship breakdowns are avoidable.

So far, so good. But how do you avoid a relationship going into meltdown?  Let's take a look at why things go wrong.

I hate it when you... 

Failure to listen to each other, lack of up front planning, inflexibility and poor quality agency personnel are cited as the principal reasons for failing relationships.

Setting clear expectations and clearly defining roles was seen by both sides as the best preventative measure, yet only half of the clients we talked to actually commit to agreeing expectations and roles in practice, and even fewer of the agencies do so. 
The Mars Venus scenario 

An interesting dynamic emerges when clients and agencies talk about both the early warning signs, and define the “straw that broke the camel’s back “.

Over 80% of clients mention some kind of output failure or decline in service as an early warning sign.

Lack of delivery by the agency, the agency not meeting or getting the brief, declining quality of work, a poor understanding of the client or their business and issues with timing and deadlines are all cited as key niggles in the relationship. 

But turn to the agency, and a very different perspective emerges. Agency feedback on early warning signs largely centres on people and relationship changes, with over half of agencies mentioning conflict or poor relations, the client’s unhappiness with agency personnel and breakdowns in communication. 

Is the client’s unhappiness at what they see as a decline in agency service perceived by the agency as relationship issues?   

The final straw

And what does finally finish the relationship? Again, the Venus and Mars gulf in perception continues to be evident.

Clients cited the final straw as “poor agency response “, defined as “we told them what the problem was and they had the opportunity to respond, but they didn’t”  and “change of agency personnel “, defined as the agency taking people that  the client rated off their business and replacing them with  inferior people in the client’s eyes .

As might be anticipated, the agencies lay blame at the client’s door, with over half the agencies  citing “a difficult or demanding client, a change in client personnel or a change of client strategy or needs as the cause of the breakdown. 
So what’s the answer?
Both agencies and clients comment on the notion of a true business partnership.  Being a business partner to their clients is clearly aspired to  by many agencies, but  there doesn’t  seem to be a clear definition as to what partnership  means in practice.

Clients also appear sceptical about whether it’s possible to have shared objectives, and hence a true partnership.  Ask both sides if they think a good relationship between people can help if issues arise or things start to go wrong, and opinions are divided – agencies seem to think so, clients are less convinced.  

To read the AAR’s partnership principles – the Ten Commandments, how to get agency-client relationships right, click here:

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