The most important quality in client agency relationships (and no, it’s not trust)

I was contacted the other day by a long lost British client, from my UK days. Someone who I ‘cut my teeth on’ in the early part of my career, and with whom I eventually developed a client-agency relationship so strong that it would end up representing a springboard to promotion.

All very good. But her reaching out to me, after nearly fourteen years, also jogged a suppressed memory of one of the biggest client relationship mistakes I ever made.

One of my biggest mistakes.

To cut a long story short, a situation arose where my client was suddenly undermined by a new, senior appointment at a regional level, operating out of France.

This person contacted me directly from France for a ‘private’ conversation, asked me to contravene some previous instructions of my British client and also send him some information about previous work. He asked me not to contact her about it.

Whilst troubled, I acquiesced. After I’d done so, my British client found out. And she was furious with me.

She told me that our trust had been broken, that I should never have gone behind her back, that she couldn’t believe that I’d done it. I have literally never had a client so upset with me, either before or since.

What did I lack?

As you can see from what you’ve read, she eventually, and graciously, forgave me, realising that the position I’d been put in was not completely my fault.

But there was no getting away from it. At that stage of my career, and no doubt at various times since, I lacked the single most important quality, for all agencies and clients alike.

No, not trust.


I wasn’t brave enough to do what I knew, really, was the right thing – call my British client, explain the situation, ask for guidance, prioritise the trusted relationship rather than seeing senior stars.

We’re not saving lives here…

No-one in our industry extracts anyone from a burning building on a regular basis. But professional bravery still exists for us all.

We all have families to raise, livelihoods to protect, staff to nuture, business to grow. Bravery, in that context, is not an overstated word.

Due to their often intense, every day, pressurised and professionally intimate nature, the amount of bravery in a client-agency relationship accounts for pretty much everything.

Bravery in doing something different, and accepting that it may draw unfriendly fire, often produces great advertising work.

Bravery in admitting mistakes, or demonstrating empathy, standing up and being counted instead of hiding behind excuses, generates trust and commitment.

Bravery in letting your team take the credit drives a motivated workforce.

Bravery in doing or saying the right thing, taking the right course of action even at personal detriment, or where there’s risk involved, is the mark of integrity that will press itself onto those you come into contact with, client or agency – and when it’s established that this is who you are, others will feel braver when standing with you.

Bravery in speaking up, even though it might create enemies, demonstrates the passion and commitment needed to run a successful client/agency relationship in the first place.

Bravery in saying no to something shows the strength needed to build proper boundaries around the relationship.

Bravery in calling bullshit on something fashionable if it isn’t in the interest of what you’re trying to achieve as a team shows an agnostic spirit.

Bravery in admitting when you don’t know or can’t do something ensures that when you do speak or know something, you will be listened to and respected.

It’s not always about the leaders.

Lots of articles, commentary and speakers basically accuse the industry of lacking bravery – whether it’s accusations that the quality of advertising is crap, that agency staffers are yes-people, that agencies blindly follow the digital star for the wrong reasons, or that marketers have their head in the sand.

But whilst there’s always criticism of the bigger picture (of course, this is what makes the headlines after all), bravery does not just apply to leaders. And bravery does not just apply to the big, headline act.

I’d like to give a little shout out to those many individuals I’ve met over the years at agencies, and on the client side.

These people aren’t necessarily the senior guys, they aren’t the leaders or always the stars. They’re often at the coalface.

They are the ones who, in continuous, small increments, are doing the right thing, standing up, being counted, being brave.

I saw this whilst working in agencies, and I see it now whilst doing consultancy work.

By their actions on the day to day minutiae, their small bursts of bravery are often key to ensuring that the broader relationship that exists between their business and that of their client or agency is built, maintained, and gradually grown.

Here’s to them.

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