Client agency relationships in advertising: 4 problems that cause breakdowns

This post is by Zena Churchill, a Senior Consultant at TrinityP3. Over the past 20 years, Zena has worked for some of the biggest international and national brands. Having worked both agency and client side, Zena has strong insight and experience across most facets of marketing, specialising in media, strategy and BTL.

When I first started out in marketing, we had a full service agency that handled all of our advertising and media needs; they were the true ‘one-stop’ shop and, at the time, it worked really well.

From the client perspective we only had one agency relationship to manage, and as a result we invested a lot of energy into making sure it ran smoothly. In our eyes, the agency was a true business partner, not just a supplier, and they were treated as such.

Client Agency Relationships in Advertising.

Over the past 20 years however, the advertising and marketing landscape has shifted dramatically; with new media, creative channels, a shift in the role of the consumer, speed to market and increased real-time performance accountability meaning there are few agencies who can offer the one-stop solution, and this means more agencies are now needed to deliver on a client’s business.

This causes issues at both ends of the spectrum, with both clients and agencies needing to manage multiple relationships per campaign, and rarely does this work.

Clients struggle to find the time needed to do this well and agencies grow resentful that agency B over there got a bigger slice of the budget, or they believe they could do a better job if only they could do it all.

During my career, I have had the privilege of working with what I thought were some of the best marketing and advertising teams around, both agency and client side. Unfortunately, I have also worked with some of the worst.

The teams that worked well together delivered great work, had a laugh whilst doing it and bandied together when the going got tough, usually ending the day at the pub or sitting in the corner of the agency boardroom swapping war stories and nursing a beer.

When they didn’t work, it was hell. Tempers flared, accusations flew and relationships that were put to the test often failed to survive the campaign. In the highly creative, energetic and volatile industry that is advertising, strong relationships built on trust, respect and honesty are vital in helping brands and agencies work together and grow.

People do their best work when they are are standing on a solid foundation because they can take on anything that is thrown their way. When cracks appear in the foundations however, things can start to get a bit shaky pretty quickly.

Research consistently shows that trust is the key driver of successful relationships between agencies and clients and in 2014, research presented by RPA at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity showed that the importance of trust in the client/agency relationship was the only survey question both agencies and clients scored the same.

So, when relationships between agencies and clients break down, what causes the trust to disappear in the first place and what can be done about it?

4 things that will cause an agency/client breakdown:

1. Unviable foundations

In any negotiation, there is always one party who walks away with a slightly better deal, starting the commercial relationship off standing on a stronger footing.

This lopsidedness is not always apparent from the start, but as time goes on and goal posts shift (on both sides) the imbalance will start to surface and resentment from the weaker negotiator will rise to the top.

Maybe it’s the client who overlooked the negotiation of production costs and is now getting charged over and above the anticipated fees, or it’s the agency who were negotiated down on account management rates only to discover the client’s way of working is sapping their resources dry.

Whichever way the balance of power ends up changing, one side of the relationship will be disgruntled and resentful of the situation they have got themselves into. The result – frustration, resentment and a breakdown in trust.

To avoid this, it’s important to start and end a negotiation well, and to do this you need to be prepared, rational, impartial and most importantly fair.

2. Lack of transparency

Both clients and agencies are guilty of not being transparent. For some reason, both sides feel that by holding some of their business cards close to their chests, they are being clever or in control of some imaginary power game.

A lack of transparency will rot any business relationship, particularly when it impacts on expected deliverables. Clients fail to reveal key commercial information to agencies, under the guise of confidentiality, but in reality all it says is ‘I don’t trust you with this information about the business’.

The result is an agency that second guesses themselves all the time, just in case there is something they don’t know that will render the work they have done as unsuitable.

Agencies are also guilty of it. I once worked with an agency who didn’t advise us that a key member of the account management team had resigned and was leaving the agency until the day before their last day.  

We were rocked to the core as this SAM was the glue that held the agency/client relationship together, and from the day that person left the business issues started to arise – why, because we no longer trusted the agency. Simple.

3. Hierarchy

There is no such thing as a completely flat team structure. There is always someone who has to run the show and make the big decisions and job titles tell us who this is, even if your business card says chief evangelist or big kahuna, it’s not fooling anyone.

Client/agency relationships start and end at the highest levels of both sides of the agreement and where it can all go terribly wrong is when the two chiefs of the deal continue to conduct business outside the team working on the day to day.

Back in my early days I worked in a fairly lean marketing team, as a result I was often tasked with running complex Marcomms campaigns on my own, and whilst I reported into my superior regularly I would often find out about strategic changes to the brief from the AM working on the business, well after the fact.

Why? Because my boss and the GAD would catch up for drinks after work, talk about the business and override decisions I’d been charged with making and amend briefs. The GAD would inform the agency, but the boss would often ‘forget’ to inform me.

The result, I didn’t trust my boss and I didn’t trust the GAD, which impacted negatively on my relationship with the entire agency team.

4. Poor communication

Ironically those who work in communications are often the poorest of communicators.

The process of briefings is in place to minimise communication issues when it comes to campaigns and in most situations, there is some form of 360, 180, 90 or 45 degree feedback to keep everyone up to speed on how good/bad they are doing.

Nevertheless, communications issues are rampant.  A lack of clear and concise communication cuts across all facets of the agency and client environment top-down, bottom-up and side to side, and usually this is a result of a poor ongoing or regular communication chain.

The brief happens at the start of a project, and if you are super organised and working well together, a WIP will be embraced early on to allow for feedback, clarification and breaking news that may impact the job at hand.

But if you are like 90% of the campaigns I have worked on, the WIP will start with gusto, being managed by the agency, before becoming a 5 minute phone conversation between the only three people who could be bothered to commit to the scheduled time – citing, internal issues, being ‘too busy’, forgetfulness or a meeting clash as reasons for not attending.

The WIP will ramp up again toward the end when it becomes clear deadlines have been missed, the client isn’t happy, media has got the schedule wrong or the creative team are confused, by then however everyone is annoyed with each other and the relationship has already started to break down.

The result is a communal sense of it being each other’s fault and a disintegration in trust. It’s a long way to recovery from there.

So how can we all get along?

Management of complex business relationships doesn’t have to be left to chance and all four of these common issues can be managed and/or reversed. Like anything in advertising, a clear and concise process will deliver the best results.

Regularly checking in on key business relationships, either between clients and agencies, agencies and agencies or just within the client organisation will help identify where the potentially fatal issues are festering and why.

The outcome is a forensic view of where relationships are currently breaking down, or where they have the potential to break down – allowing you to address them before they do.

Evalu8ing offers this solution by being the only fully multi-relationship assessment measurement tool that is 100% tailored to your needs. This means you get a truly bespoke assessment of the situation at hand, and more importantly an opportunity to workshop them, monitor them or in some instances, remove the cause of the problem altogether.

TrinityP3’s Relationship Performance Evaluation service measures collaboration and alignment between marketing team agencies, offering insight and recommendation to maximise your collaborative output. Learn more here

About Zena Churchill

Zena is a Senior Consultant at TrinityP3. Over the past 20 years, Zena has worked for some of the biggest international and national brands. Having worked both agency and client side, Zena has strong insight and experience across most facets of marketing, specialising in media, strategy and BTL.

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