The Insights Blog

The Keys to Strong Client-Agency Relationships

The Keys to Strong Client-Agency Relationships

high five

Over the years, we’ve conducted hundreds of client-agency 360 reviews, a process wherein we talk to and survey clients and their agencies to find out what’s working, what’s not, and “where to go from here.” Recently, we dug through results of ten years of such reviews to find out what, if any, themes could be uncovered, themes that would tell us what factors were most important for keeping client-agency relationships humming along successfully.

We discovered that whether things are going well or not, it’s often the same areas that are critical. If these key areas score well, so goes the relationship. Conversely, if these areas score poorly, it’s time for targeted action to fix what’s broken. By the way, it’s rare that these reviews go so poorly they lead outright to a search for a new agency (though that has happened), because often the whole purpose of doing a 360 is to maintain a healthy relationship before it goes south. Finding and fixing issues that fall under these larger themes will simultaneously take care of a lot of the smaller stuff, so it’s good to take note of what the most critical “big buckets” are for either side.

Here’s what we found…

For clients reviewing their agency, three areas make the biggest difference (positive or negative) across 360 reviews.

Clients mentioned these key strength and opportunity areas most often:
  1. Service
  2. Strategy
  3. Agency Offering (creative, media planning, etc.)

These are in descending order, so service is the single most-mentioned theme, above even the services the agency was hired on to handle. While you certainly don’t win an account based on service, it sure can help you keep the account; you may have won the business based on strategy AND it is critical to keep that fresh. It goes without saying that regarding #3, maintaining the quality of your core offering (whether it be creative services, PR, or whatever) is also critical to keeping clients happy. However, even if you’re doing effective work but not showing up where and when the client needs you for support, chances are the relationship will become strained.

On the flipside, when agencies review their clients, the following areas show up as strengths most often.

Agencies mentioned these strength areas:
  1. Partnership
  2. Guidance
  3. Knowledge (of industry, workflow, etc.)

#1 is partnership. Agencies who are treated as a partner feel better about the work they do. Also, any issues are a lot easier to deal with when both parties feel equally engaged in the outcomes. This is why so often we hear agencies asking to have a seat at the table early when clients discuss core business issues – they want to act as partners. This desire dovetails nicely with strength #2: guidance. If clients don’t convey clear guidance on what the work needs to do from the get-go (or throughout the process during regular reviews/check-ins), the chances the output will be a hole in one are about the same as actually hitting one of those on a golf course. When clients do provide good guidance, it shows in the work, and agencies aren’t shy about calling it out as a strength. Regarding #3, knowledge: when a client stakeholder is well-informed about their line of work, the industry, and the company itself, they can more readily help with strengths 1 and 2.

Agencies reviewing clients had a slightly different list when it came to opportunities.

Agencies mentioned these opportunity areas:
  1. Guidance
  2. Alignment
  3. Processes

Guidance at #1 shows up in both agency lists – it’s clearly an important factor. Good communication makes for good work, and the reverse is just as true. When things are not working in a client-agency relationship, guidance/communication is often the first place to look. As we have all experienced, a single phone call can cure ills that could’ve taken a dozen emails to do so. When Guidance is poor, it naturally affects #2: alignment. If an agency is not given good guidance, it’s hard for them to align on what the work should be trying to do, and feedback can get very subjective when no one’s clear on the original goals of a given effort. These first two opportunities are closely tied.

Opportunity #3, processes, is often a longer-term fix, as agencies and clients can gain process efficiencies even after a rough start. That said, it’s at #3 because even some of the relationships we reviewed that were 5+ years strong listed this as a key opportunity. Sometimes it’s just the natural pain of working through another company’s mandatory myriad processes, but it’s important for both sides to at least agree on the processes they can control, i.e., anything that occurs between the two of them. Just as with guidance, setting good processes ensures everyone has clarity on expectations, and the less time thinking about workflow, the more time can be spent executing the work.

In any client-agency relationship, regularly checking in on what’s working or not (whether through a formal process like a 360 or on a more ad hoc basis) is absolutely necessary for continued success. If you’re unsure of where to start with improvement areas to tackle, look to the lists above. Given their prevalence over our decades of 360 reviews, chances are they’re key to your relationships, too. If something’s not working well in any of these larger categories, that’s guaranteed to be affecting a lot downstream, as well. Finding practical ways to solve these key issues will lead to improved relationships, better output, and hopefully long-lasting marketing success.

Barry O’Neil has led numerous agency/vendor searches and client/agency relationship management 360 review processes for clients such as CFA Institute, TrueCar, Logan’s Roadhouse, UScellular, Ulta Beauty, Clarisonic, CenturyLink, CustomInk and many others. He has also participated in corporate restructuring initiatives, client process realignment initiatives, and agency new business reviews and pitch/positioning consulting.