The perfect client-agency relationship does not exist. Period. End of statement. Drop the mic and slowly walk away.

13 years ago I made the transition from client to agent. I thought then that I knew exactly what the perfect relationship would look like. I’ve been trying to perfect the relationship ever since.

Some of you may remember a United Airlines ad that aired in 1990. Many of you reading this may not remember much of anything about the 90’s – having not lived in it or having been too young (I was 12 – formulating what I wanted to be when I grew up). Its message left an indelible impression on me. 

Both before and since COVID-19 restrictions had taken effect, and we’ve had several clients slow down or stop their marketing, I’ve been thinking about the message of that ad and how much of it’s message rings true today. The longest-lasting, healthiest client-agency relationships I’ve enjoyed all have one thing in common – personal touch. Execution, on-time delivery, creative thinking, and many more elements contribute. But, nothing like connection.

Here are 2 mindsets and 7 behaviors that trump any other component of the ideal (notice I didn’t say perfect) client-agency relationship.

Ideal Client-Agency Mindsets

People are People

There is no such thing as “it’s just business”! Businesses are made up of people. People are what makeup economies, communities, and businesses. People spend the money that makes the business world go ‘round.

Skills and capabilities are Secondary 

The platforms your marketing agency uses to market your business create parity amongst all firms. Nobody has an advantage on a platform – unless they understand how to shift consumer behavior. It’s about the relationship.

Ideal Client-Agency Behaviors

Be Clear 

First, set clear, specific expectations from the start. Important categories include:

  1. When you expect your communication
  2. How you like to be communicated with
  3. What you like communicated to you
  4. How you communicate back
  5. What success looks and feels like to you

Second, “I like it”, and, “I hate it” are both very bad responses. It’s simply not enough information. Your agency needs to know why you like it, why you hate it, or why you’re ambivalent. 

Specificity is the key to improvement. Not only does specificity get you the results you need, but it also solidifies whether you have the right agency partner. With specificity, you get to learn how each other thinks and acts. Plus, you get to learn an agency’s responsiveness to pressure and stress. The time will come when you need a battle-ready partner to market your business. Find out early if the agency you have or the agency your considering is battle-tested.

Be Honest

No matter what you’re thinking or feeling. Express it directly, clearly, and honestly. In the end, any veiled intentions or thoughts hurt everyone. The concept of “fail fast” comes to mind. The more honest you are, the more quickly you’ll know if you have the right client-agency relationship.

Be Quick to Judgement

This sounds contradictory to everything I’ve been saying. So, hear me out. 

You need reports, data, and communication to know if you’re succeeding. It’s not unrealistic to expect your agency to provide you quality feedback, timely delivery of executables, and accurate reporting on KPIs. It’s also not unrealistic for your agency to expect you to know exactly what you’re thinking – even if it’s not positive to them. They need to know what you’re thinking.

Give Yourself Time

Consider how these 5 phases of your ideal relationship will suit your purposes:

  1. Vetting and testing: deciding between competing agencies in a dogfight to close the deal
  2. Engagement and excitement: decision made, excitement on the service sold
  3. Turbulence: like any good relationship, within a short time, the flaws start to come out
  4. Correction: communication, clear dialogue, specific corrections laid out, clear steps to the right pathway forward created
  5. Alignment: continued micro corrections to the processes and relationships create long-term alignment and strengthened relationships

Be Patient with Action

It takes two to tango. Neither you nor your agency is perfect. Marketing isn’t a perfect science. You hired an agency because you don’t specialize in marketing. So, firing your agency because they didn’t get it right the first time is just foolish. And, in enough instances for me to know, you’re part of the problem. I haven’t had a conversation with a client in recent memory that didn’t include their disappointment with their prior agency. Some agencies deserve the criticism. Some don’t.

Sometimes you’re on the wrong side of the thinking. You know your business best. The right agency knows their business best. So you need to be able to give and take and learn from each other to achieve the best results.

For all you agency owners/leaders, listen up! If your new prospect is telling you about how they are dissatisfied with their current agency, ask them how many agencies they’ve worked with over the past few years. If it’s more than one, they may be the problem. Are you willing to take that problem on?

Don’t Surprise your Agency with Bad News

It’s possible that either you, your agency, or both, have underperformed your relationship. The least humane, indecent thing I can think of is for an agency to fall asleep at the switch and for the client to suddenly share their accumulated disappointments in the form of termination.

This goes back to being clear and honest. If you, as a client, aren’t forthright in your communication you may not have earned the right to suddenly cancel your engagement.

Know Your Emotions

Don’t hire an agency if you’re crap isn’t together and you’re on your last dollar. If you are on the razor’s edge, you cannot possibly make rational decisions with respect to marketing and an agency partner. 

Now, I’m not saying that our emotions aren’t important or valuable in business. I believe in the power of gut feelings. If left to those feelings alone, however, you compromise your agency relationship. 

So maybe the perfect Client-Agency Relationship can exist?

Finding an agency to align yourself with is less complicated than you think if you have the right perspective. Doing a self-check based on some of the topics above is a good first step. 

Don’t be jaded. Not every agency is bad news.

Go deeper with your research. Like a glacier, the history and quality of any good relationship are mostly unseen with a quick glance. Dig deep to make sure you are set up for success.