Five truisms of client-agency relationships

The client-agency relationship is a bit unique when it comes to general business relationships. One is often trying to be more personal, more akin to the other, demonstrating its personal commitment. The other needs the strengths the other possesses, but still needs to be in charge.

Ultimately, both are trying to accomplish the same end results, but with a different view of the relationship.

Having been on the agency side of the equation for most of my career, and being a realist, let me share a few truisms and see if you — no matter which side you’re on — agree, disagree or can add to this list.

1) Your client is your client; not your best bud. While there are exceptions of long-term, client-agency relationships, they rarely last forever. Money and results are always the most bottom of bottom lines. Though the personalities involved on both sides can strengthen that relationship, it should never get too friendly. Why? Because your client is held to results and budget by his/her boss, and that is what usually makes or breaks relationship.

2) Don’t BS your client but you don’t have to tell all, all the time. As long as the end result is part of the objective and there are no legal or ethical issues, the client doesn’t have to know the path taken.

Several years ago, I was working with a client on a demonstration of a new product at a major publisher in Iowa. The account manager and I arrived the day before, and the client team arrived the morning of the demonstration. When I saw the director of marketing that morning, he asked how things were going. My reply? “Great, as far as you know.” He looked at me and smiled.

He didn’t know the hoops my colleague and I went through the evening before and that morning to get the product demonstration equipment to the publisher, and get it ready. It may not have been as planned, but the end result met client expectations.

3) Give more in value than the client pays, but don’t sell your soul. We’re all in business to make money. Every good agency sets its rates to make a profit, and maybe adds a contingency onto projects to cover work that runs over or is out of scope. Regardless of how an agency handles its billing, it’s incumbent upon the account team to ensure the client sees value in its services. That means delivering more results than expected.

And, when those projects don’t go as planned, show that you’re still thinking long-term. For example, for a good portion of my career, I managed monthly PR fees for clients. Time was covered by the fee. Outside expenses were billed. One time, there was a PR effort that didn’t meet the client’s, nor my, expectations. I also was working on an unrelated product photography project for that same client. While I could’ve easily billed the $200-300 for that little work, I applied it to the monthly fee instead, and let the client know.

In the big picture, that amount wasn’t a significant part of the budget, but it wasn’t worth billing the client either, when neither he nor I were happy with the previous project.

It’s worth the short-term revenue sacrifice to invest in the long-term client relationship.

4) Ability to say no is invaluable. I’ve been in enough meetings where, someone had a solid, well-thought-out idea only to have the client (or someone of authority) say no, and that person immediately backs down and backs away from his/her idea.

It’s okay to disagree with a client (or a supervisor), or explain why your idea might be better. Ultimately, it’s the client’s budget and the client has the final say, but you don’t do the client any service if you’re not offering other views. The agency’s ultimate value is being an outside perspective, strategy and execution.

5) Educate. Educate. Educate. And Educate again. Never under estimate the value of explaining some of the rationale behind what you do, why you propose what you proposed, and the back channel story behind results. This approach, by the way, helps with one’s bosses and colleagues as well.

For example, say you propose a news release on planned layoffs. That’s usually a pretty touchy topic. Why draw attention to bad news, your client might ask?

The answer is, you know someone is going to talk and your media, consumer or trade, will be calling you for details. “No comment” doesn’t cut it today as people expect some level of corporate authenticity and transparency.

In addition, being proactive and not reactive gives you the chance to tell your story: Explain the rationale behind the layoffs and what you are doing to help those laid off (i.e., help with job placement, retraining, any severance or benefits package, etc.). Granted, there are some questions you won’t be able to answer. However, by answering what you can while adding in your side of the story, you will give your client its best opportunity to diminish the likely negative tone.

I’d welcome your input if you’ve experienced any of the above, or have your own agency-client truism.

(Image courtesy of Hackfish (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons)


Cross-published from a March 2015 LinkedIn Pulse post, and making sure my own content is on my own site.


  • Kevin Cesarz (#)
    September 11th, 2016

    Nice analysis, Mike. Agree that Point 1 begets Point 4. Your client is not your friend and nurturing this makes ‘no’ hard and cost overruns likely.