Monday, February 13, 2017

Better Client-Agency relationships lead to better Commercial Creativity. And that's a good thing.

Some time back I wrote a blog based on a report called "A is for Alliances", published by the IPA (Institute of Practitioners in Advertising), in the UK. (Images below are from the report. Download it here)

In it, they provide real justification for the age old saying that Clients get the agencies they deserve.

Aprais, a renowned Business Relationship Management Consultancy, reckons that there is as much as a 37% differential in the quality of creative output between poor and good client-agency relationships.

Unless you've been under a rock you know already that better creative is a better business building tool - more effective, more efficient, better ROI. (If you're still unconvinced, please read The Case for Creativity. Again, if need be).

So adding the Apprais research and The Case for Creativity findings together, we get a simple equation:

Good relationship = good work = better results.

Scientifically proven, even!

My mantra when I started Adtherapy ten years ago was similar:

Better skills = better relationships = better results.

How I got to this piece of intuitive brilliance? By working back from the great campaigns I'd been involved with, and realising there was always a strong client-agency partnership behind them. And when I unpacked what was at the root of those partnerships, it was obvious. Skills. Other things too - chemistry, culture compatibility, bravery, fun. But skills meant that each party respected each other and had confidence in each other. That  'trust' thing.

One of my clients told me that she would jump off a mountain, that our Executive Creative Director was like her parachute; that was the extent to which she trusted him (and us). The work we did for her got her death threats and nearly got her fired, but catapulted their business into the stratosphere, so she knew what 'brave' meant.

What drives successful Client-Agency partnerships?

The IPA has come up with 4 basic drivers of good partnerships. They are:
  1. Transparent and effective approval processes
  2. Mutually agreed and maintained timing plans
  3. Honest and open briefings with clear business objectives, budget, timing and brand guidelines
  4. Respectful and collaborative behaviours built on shared goals and rewards.

So simple. And yet, and yet, and yet...

  • Many briefs are terrible. Lacking in information, too long, no clear thinking, prescriptive, pedantic, clumsy, no insight.
  • Many times the business objectives and the brand objectives are muddled and are not clear.
  • Consumer understanding is limited and basic or super surface-level.
  • These horrible briefs are often emailed; not even presented in person.
  • Agency sometimes questions the briefs, but this creates a disharmony - "why are they being so argumentative"?
  • Deadlines bear no resemblance to reality - they are imposed from the outside in, because of an internal deadline.
  • Then the work that comes back is used as a guide to what the client team doesn't want, doesn't like.
  • There are few evaluation skills, few skills that help in giving constructive feedback. B.t.w. - "it makes me want to vomit" is not a good one.
  • Approvals become about second guessing the bigger boss, and then the next bigger boss, because many of the corporate marketing teams operate in a culture of fear and 'what would s/he like'?
  • And would you believe it, because of all of this to-ing and fro-ing, deadlines are missed.
  • And the agency is "useless".

Many of these marketers and agencies willingly submit to relationship audits, every month, twice a year, whatever, to 'measure the relationship'. Issues are raised, concerns are flagged. Until the next audit, when the same issues are raised and concerns are flagged.

What to do? *wrings her hands*

Back to Adtherapy maths formula.

Better skills = better relationships = better results.

What to do? Put the skills in place to make it work. Then, get some Partnership Principles in place. And move forward happily - or don't. You may both be wrong for each other. Acknowledge it and move on instead of perpetuating an unsuccessful relationship.

What are Partnership Principles?

The work done in the IPA exercise highlighted the concept of a Relationship Contract. Agencies and clients have lengthy legal contracts (which are often not signed because they spend so much time bouncing between lawyers) and detailed fee agreements but no real contract on how to work together. An example from Avis and DDB from the 1960's shows us how it's done.

From A is For Alliances, IPA

To get you started, you could consider the advice given by Gotz Ulmer, Executive Creative Director at Germany's best agency, Jung von Matt. He said they have three simple rules for working with clients. They ask:

1. Are we making money?
2. Are we doing great work?
3. Are we having fun?

If they can't answer 'Yes' to at least 2, then it's not the right agency-client partnership for them. 

Then make sure you ad your client have the right skills.

What are these magical skills, I hear you cry? Interestingly, I believe the same set of skills is required by both parties at the coalface - namely the agency account manager/strategist team, and the brand/marketing manager. They are the fulcrum of the relationship and need to manage up, manage resources, manage conflict and manage the risk.

Some of the skills are 'hard', some are 'soft'. This is not a complete list, but here are some:

  • Hard: Brand strategy, positioning, segmentation, consumer behaviour, real insights, writing exceptional briefs, evaluating creative, integrated media options (including digital), budget management.
  • Soft: Giving constructive feedback, being inspiring, managing conflict in a positive way, selling up the organisation, effective communication, body language, building teams, presenting well.

Honestly, if you are managing clients , or are managing an agency relationship without being super skilled in these areas, you are wasting other people's time and money. 

The whole point of having an agency is that they are able to bring to the business a degree of commercial creativity that will drive your business forward. A little like the man with the ladder in this picture:

Work together well, and both your businesses will thrive. Work together badly, and both your businesses will suffer. Or at least not do as well as they could. And you will get the advertising, and the agency, you deserve.

Adtherapy is premised on helping agencies and marketers work better together to develop better quality creative output, because it is better for business. We have numerous training options from Creative Fitness for marketers to Account Leadership for agencies, to a fully fledged suite of modules for up-skilling marketing teams in our new Business Marketing Academy. And we consult too!  
Browse our offerings on or email me on or talk to me on Twitter, LinkedInFacebook. Or just stop me in the street.

(Ladder man image courtesy of by JessaPhorn)


  1. Thanks for sharing post !good news Marketing Agency Marketing Agency.

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