In This Post:   

Choosing Your Digital Marketing Agency: The Courtship Phase
Understand What You Want
Don’t Ignore Red Flags
Research Your Marketing Agency Prospects
Ask the Tough Questions
…And Listen Carefully to the Answers
Be Ready for an Agency Partnership

Managing Your Agency Relationship: The Ever After
The Client Onboarding Process
Have Examples Ready
Follow the Client-Agency Relationship Playbook
Stop Thinking “I Could Do That Myself”


We’re a relationship-happy culture. Looking for articles about improving your relationship with your spouse, family or friends? No problem. Want to watch a reality dating show? You got it. Interested in an Oscar-winner about the end of a marriage? It’s a click away. There’s just one relationship that never quite sees the spotlight: the one between business stakeholders and their digital marketing agencies. 

What is an Agency Relationship?

Maybe one of the reasons we don’t give the agency-client relationship more attention is because we forget that it is a relationship. For a business owner or CMO, an agency’s success or failure can feel purely transactional: did the agency deliver on what they promised or not? But while outcomes are critical, they’re only the top layer of a story driven by communication, trust, expectations, and transparency. 

In fact, researchers who have put the client-agency relationship under the lens have found that there are four key principles in the client-agency relationship that influence success: 

  • Work Product: The actual campaign outcomes and work produced 
  • Work Patterns: How the project is managed and communicated 
  • Organizational Factors: The company’s structure and politics, and the experience level of the team members involved   
  • Relationship Factors: The trust, respect, and chemistry between the client and team 

To put that another way, four factors inspire clients to sing their agency’s praises or vault over a fence and head for the hills — and only one of them is tied to actual campaign outcomes. 

Moreover, the outcomes themselves are often directly influenced by the strength of communication on both ends. Poor communication costs businesses an estimated $37 billion per year, and the agency-client relationship isn’t exempt.  

What can you do about this? Simply manage your agency relationship the same way you’d manage any other relationship. To get started, you won’t even have to look past all the relationship-driven content that’s already out there. 

Choosing Your Digital Marketing Agency: The Courtship Phase 

If you’re a business owner or stakeholder looking for an agency, it’s usually the marketing agency’s responsibility to impress you — not the other way around. Lucky you! You will henceforth be called The Bachelor(ette). Your job is to pick your perfect agency out of a pool of attractive and fairly identical-looking candidates who are all vying to win your heart. 

And that job isn’t easy. It’s hard to know what the long-term reality of your relationship will look like when your candidates are all scrambling to present their best selves. Further, you face the omnipresent threat of the agency that isn’t Here for the Right Reasons, and it can be hard to distinguish one of these from a genuine keeper. 

Stay the course and trust the process, friend. We can take our cues from the Bachelor’s handful of success stories to identify the selection strategies that work. 

Understand What You Want  

Hand-wringing deliberation will come later — the first few episodes of The Bachelor favor ruthless efficiency. Eliminating aspiring influencers with the precision of a surgeon, the lead culls his field of candidates down from 25 to a much more manageable ten or so. To do this successfully, he must define his criteria narrowly enough to exclude around 60% of the candidates without much trouble. 

Like our intrepid Bachelor, your odds of success increase dramatically when you know what you’re looking for. Start with some basic criteria that will let you rule out a portion of your candidate pool automatically: 

  • Are you looking for a small, medium-sized or large agency? 
  • Should your agency have focused expertise in startups, small businesses, medium-sized businesses, large businesses or enterprise brands? 
  • What services do you need? Is it important for you to find an agency that does all of them, or are you willing to work with multiple agencies? 
  • Is there a particular market or location your agency should know well? An industry? A business type (B2B, B2C, ecommerce, brick-and-mortar, etc)? 
  • What is your budget? 
  • What are your goals? 

If you don’t have a preference regarding some of these questions, that’s okay. We’re just trying to narrow down the pool of contenders. 

And if you spot a great-looking agency that doesn’t tick off every box on your list? Ask about it. Industry-specific expertise in particular poses a quandary. First, agency websites are unlikely to list every industry or business type they’ve ever worked with, for the simple reason that they’d have to list hundreds. 

Second, lacking experience in a particular industry doesn’t necessarily preclude an agency from being the right fit for your business. At the end of the day, their experience in their own industry makes the difference. Marketing strategies aren’t one-size-fits-all, but experienced marketers know how to do their homework and tailor best practices to fit your industry. So the best thing to do is ask, then decide whether the answer satisfies you. 

And like any good Bachelor, know when to compromise. Skills are non-negotiable; direct experience with your industry is more of a gray area.  

Don’t Ignore Red Flags 

It’s fairly common for marketing agencies to devote more time to managing client campaigns than their own marketing. But a decent agency will channel resources to internal marketing too — because in the words of the great Ru Paul, “If you don’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?” 

When you’re still in the mass culling phase, there’s a bar you can expect your agency’s website to hit. At a minimum, the website should: 

  • Be well-designed and up to date 
  • Use clear, compelling language 
  • Articulate the agency’s services specifically, not vaguely 
  • Avoid splashy, unsupported promises 
  • Provide easy access to work examples and data-backed case studies 
  • Have an “About Us/Who We Are” page that doesn’t keep the company’s staff, location or history shrouded in mystery 

Red flags include: 

  • Consistently poor spelling or grammar 
  • Case studies or work examples you can’t actually click on 
  • Evidence that the website has been neglected for some time: content is outdated, links are broken, key pages return 404s 
  • Negative reviews or consumer complaints when you Google the agency 
  • The website uses the “We” pronoun (ex – “We’re a digital agency that drives results”), but you can’t find any evidence of an in-house team 

Ultimately, the website’s transparency or lack thereof is the biggest indicator of whether your prospective agency is everything it claims to be. Legitimate agencies will be proud to walk you through their process, show you their results, and share who they are. 

Research Your Marketing Agency Prospects

Moving out of the mass culling phase, you can now start to invest a little more time in each website. Remember the four variables that influence the success of client-agency relationships: work products, work patterns, organizational factors and relationship factors. 

  • Work Products: Browse the resources the agency provides for free. Read blog posts and download ebooks. Are you satisfied with the quality? 
  • Work Patterns: You might be able to find some clues about the agency’s workflow and communication style. Pay attention to process descriptions, mentions of tools used, and whether there are project managers on the team. 
  • Organizational Factors: Do you like the values espoused by the brand? Good agency websites won’t just talk up how great they are; they’ll talk about what actually drives them. 
  • Relationship Factors: This one’s tougher to determine from the website alone. You might be able to pick up some clues from the voice and tone of blog posts; but for the most part, reserve your judgement until you start speaking with a representative. 

Ask the Tough Questions 

Finally, we arrive at the 1×1 date: the moment when you’ll engage in conversation with your prospective agency. The questions you ask during this stage can play a critical role in whether you ultimately achieve the outcomes you’re looking for. Use those four key variables — work products, work patterns, organizational factors, and relationship factors — to guide your questions. 

Here’s a list to get you started: 

  • My goals are X or I’m facing Y problem. What is your agency’s approach to meeting this goal or addressing the issue? 
  • Have you encountered this goal or concern in the past? What were your results? 
  • Is my budget reasonable for a project of this scope? 
  • What industries and business types do you typically work with? 
  • How do you track and report on ROI?  
  • Can I see work samples? 
  • Who will be working on my account? 
  • What does the onboarding process look like?   
  • How much flexibility is there to customize the services you offer? 
  • Is your whole team in-house or do you contract work out? 
  • How will the team communicate with me? How often? When I have a question, how soon can I expect a response? 
  • Will I be in direct contact with the person/people performing the work, or will communication be routed through an account manager? 
  • What tools and services does the team have access to? 
  • Does your team engage in ongoing education? What kind? 

There aren’t right or wrong answers for many of these questions. There are only answers that are compatible or incompatible with your preferences. 

…And Listen Carefully to the Answers 

Of course, you’re not just looking for the answers themselves. Throughout the conversation, pay attention to how well the agency manages expectations. The ones with your best interests at heart won’t shy away from the answers you don’t want to hear, even if promising the moon would close the sale faster. 

For example, talk to any SEO specialist and they’ll tell you how much they hate the question “When can I expect to see results?” because the answer depends on so many things that are out of the specialist’s control. But during your early conversations with the agency, it’s still worth asking this question just to watch how the answer is handled.

The reality is, it’s going to take awhile. Viral or timely pieces of content might see near-immediate results, but for on-site optimization to hit a revenue-shifting groundswell, expect to wait at least 3-6 months. And if you’re not actively working on other marketing efforts, stretch that timeline out indefinitely. 

That’s not easy information to hear. And it’s not easy news to deliver. But good sales representatives and digital strategists care deeply about setting realistic expectations, because they care deeply about people. They care about the business owner, who should have full information before commiting to a project. They care about their fellow team members, who will have to struggle with unattainable goals or answer to disappointed clients if expectations aren’t aligned.  

SEO ROI is just one example of a sticky subject. Tough truths can be found in every marketing channel, and they’re notorious for lurking in high-level conversations about budget and timing. Suss them out. They’re a sign that you’re working with a keeper. 

Be Ready for an Agency Partnership

You’re finally ready to close the deal! But before you slip that shiny Neil Lane-sponsored contract onto your agency’s finger, remember that great results require a commitment from both of you, not just the agency.

Each digital channel —- SEO, paid search, social media, email, PR, design and content — is part of an ecosystem. Their ROI is influenced not just by the work put into the channel, but by the entire ecosystem. And if that ecosystem isn’t healthy, the individual channel will be saddled with a significant handicap — and its ROI will reflect that. 

When you purchase a marketing service, your odds of success increase exponentially when you understand that nothing happens in a vacuum. The more effort you put into your marketing strategy as a whole, the more those individual channels can flourish.  

Managing Your Agency Relationship 

Once you’re working with a digital or creative agency, you can maximize the chances of getting exactly what you’re looking for by approaching your relationship strategically. 

The Client  Onboarding Process

Your digital team will likely kick off with an onboarding session, during which you’ll: 

  • Meet the team
  • Learn about the logistics of the process (communication touchpoints, project management systems, meeting and reporting frequency, etc) 
  • Learn about the work performed, including the strategy, deliverables and timeline 
  • Answer questions about your business 
  • Discuss goals 

Prior to this session, you might also be asked to fill out a questionnaire related to the specific services you’ve chosen. 

The more information you can provide during this stage, the better. Introduce your brand’s voice and tone. Share your core offerings and product differentiators. If you know who your competitors are, mention them. If there’s a brand or style you’d like to emulate, bring it up. Describe the other marketing initiatives you’re currently engaged in so the team can be sure to sync up with those. And finally, talk about the marketing strategies that have worked in the past and the ones that haven’t. Let the team benefit from your valuable trial-and-error process so they can hit the ground running. 

If you don’t have answers to some of those questions, that’s perfectly okay — just communicate that. Nobody expects you to have it all figured out, and the team is happy to help define your brand or identify your competitors. They just don’t want to create a strategy that doesn’t align with the path you’ve already carved. 

Have Examples Ready 

Talk to any hairstylist and they’ll tell you they love it when a client walks in and pulls up pictures of the haircut they’re looking for. Rather than boxing the stylist in, the examples give them an easy way to get on the same page as the client and meet their expectations. 

The stylist can often recreate the exact haircut, leaving a happy and well-coiffed client in their wake. But if they can’t — for example, if the haircut wouldn’t sit the same way with the client’s hair type or face shape — they’ll know before they have to snip a single hair. At that point they can talk to the client about the constraints and introduce alternatives. 

It’s like that with creative work, too. So if you hired your agency for design or copywriting services, come prepared with examples of work you like. Your agency will then be able to deliver work that matches your expectations or talk to you about constraints and propose alternatives. 

What if you don’t know what you want? If you’re flexible, an open-ended project can yield exciting results. Walk into a hair salon or barber shop and tell the stylist, “I’m adventurous and completely unattached to my hair — just have fun,” and you’ll probably be the stylist’s favorite client. On the other hand, if you say that but decide midway through that you actually hate bangs or didn’t want to cut your hair that short, then you’re on a fast track to Worst Client of the Week. 

The same rule applies with creative work. Open-ended creative briefs are fine as long as you remain open throughout the process. But moving from open-ended to critical and particular forces your creative team to find a needle in an amorphous, changeable blob of a haystack. There are thousands of different designs that could all satisfy a creative brief. If you’re looking for something in particular, narrow down the field of options. 

Follow the Client-Agency Relationship Playbook 

Just like four little nucleotide sequences form the DNA of all organic life, great relationships across the board share the same building blocks. And since the byproduct of a great agency relationship is great ROI, it’s worth going back to the fundamentals to make yours as strong as possible. Remember that all good relationships consist of the following: 

Communication 

If you’re not happy with a deliverable or the results you’re seeing so far, simply registering your unhappiness isn’t actionable. If it’s creative work, describe as specifically as possible what you don’t like so the revisions have a better chance of hitting the mark. There will be times when you know you don’t like something, but won’t have the language to describe why. Try anyway, leaning on examples of similar work you like. 

If you’re unhappy with the deliverables or ROI of a paid, organic or social media campaign, bring it up. Your team will be able to put the results into context or discuss shifting gears. Stay open and curious, not accusatory. When possible, come prepared with some questions so the conversation can be educational, not confrontational. 

Trust 

If you’re not familiar with a particular field, then sometimes valid explanations can sound like excuses. Or pushback on one of your suggestions can feel like inflexibility. Or a strategic pivot can feel like the specialist’s approach was uninformed the first go-round. 

Unfortunately, there’s not a clear way to tell the difference sometimes. You could call in a third-party expert to assess the strategy, and you should always feel empowered to do so (just make sure your expert actually works in the specialist’s field and isn’t a general consultant). You can also ask the specialist to link to credible resources that support what they’re telling you: case studies related to a similar question, or information about best practices and results. 

But at the end of the day, you’re just going to have to decide whether you trust them or not. How reliably do they get back to you when you have a question? How clear and thorough are their explanations? How logical are they? Is what they’re telling you consistent with what they’ve told you before? Do they seem genuinely interested in educating you about their field? Good teams and specialists don’t cloak their work in secrecy. On the contrary, they love teaching as they go. 

If you’ve done your homework researching the agency and there haven’t been red flags in your conversations with your specialist, it’s in your best interest to trust them. Successful projects are proactive, not sidelined by long discussions, accusations, or push-back. Plus, your specialists can do their best work when they trust you, too. 

Compatibility 

Look, sometimes the chemistry just isn’t there. That’s okay. 

Your specialists are people, so they’re each governed by their own communication style and personality type, and it might not be compatible with yours. A specialist who keeps communication short and direct might be exactly what you’re looking for, or they might come off as cold and dismissive. On the flip side, some specialists will write you a book every time you ask a question. For clients who want to learn as they go, that’s a great thing — but not every client does, because they’d rather focus on running their business. 

If you’re simply not clicking with your core specialist(s), for the sake of momentum it’s usually better to work with the relationship when you can. If you’re satisfied with the work produced, let your personality preferences go. Sometimes your exact opposite can offer key insights you hadn’t considered before. If you surround yourself with people who are just like you, you’ll never tap into the full spectrum of feedback that’s vital to the health of your business. 

If the relationship really isn’t clicking and you believe the work is suffering from the disconnect, ask if you can be paired with someone else. Explain what’s not working for you so your project manager (or the department manager, if your issues are PM-related) can find you a better fit. It might not be possible to reconfigure booked client plates, but generally everyone’s workload has a built-in buffer to accommodate change.  

And for what it’s worth, at Studio we really do consider fit before we pair you with a specialist. Some specialists gravitate toward certain industries or brand styles, and accommodating those makes the experience better for everyone. If you have preferences, bring them up early. 

Stop Thinking “I Could Do That Myself” 

To clarify, this line of thinking isn’t always bad. Here’s how it works: 

  • Thinking “I could do that myself” when you’re hungry for tacos and decide to save a little money instead of going out: Good ✅
  • Thinking “I could do that myself” because you just spent $6 on a taco and you resent the taqueria for charging that amount: Bad ❌

Got it? Let’s try another one: 

  • Thinking “I could do that myself” when you’re so inspired by someone’s guitar playing that you decide to dust off your guitar and learn a few chords: Good ✅
  • Thinking “I could do that myself” when you go to a concert and the guitar player messes up once: Bad ❌

And what the heck, let’s do one more: 

  • Thinking “I could do that myself” and trying your hand at soapmaking because you’re looking for a new hobby: Good ✅
  • Saying “I could do that myself” to the soap vendor at the farmer’s market to let her know the jig is up — you made soap once and didn’t mess it up, so it’s not that hard: Bad ❌ 

See what’s going on here? The DIY mentality can be thrifty and adventurous, or it can be an insidious way to devalue someone else’s work while vastly overestimating your own mastery of a skill. If your business sells food, consumer-friendly goods or basically anything you can find slapped together with the words “DIY” or “Tutorial” on Pinterest, you might even be familiar with this phrase.  

Within the agency-client relationship, “I can do it myself” happens when someone develops a working knowledge of the service provided and starts to question the value of what they’re paying for. We’ve all been guilty of mistaking conversational fluency with deeply knowing a subject or skill, but mastery doesn’t come from reading a few blog posts. It doesn’t even happen if you read nothing but blog posts for a week. It happens through thousands of hours of applied knowledge. 

But here’s the thing: whether you can do it yourself or not doesn’t matter. You don’t go out for tacos because you can’t make a taco yourself. You go out for tacos because you don’t want to make the taco yourself. You don’t have time, and the ingredients are expensive in the amount you’d have to purchase, and the restaurant’s tacos are delicious. 

Whether you purchase a taco from a restaurant, a product from a shop or a service from an agency, you’re not just paying for the product. You’re paying for the business’s access to materials you don’t want to buy — in an agency’s case, paid tools for SEO, design, social media management, outreach, competitor research and more. You’re paying for the time they put into perfecting their product and finding qualified staff. And you’re paying for the layers of accountability and communication built into the system. 

Good relationships happen when there’s mutual respect for everything each person does behind the scenes. Within an agency-client relationship, this respect is essential to moving at speed and producing the best possible outcome.  

None of this means it’s all on you; you can and should expect your agency to do the heavy lifting when it comes to relationship management. But you have the power to approach the relationship in a way that maximizes your results. 

And if you’re ready to work with an agency who’s here for all the right reasons, give Studio a shout — we’d be thrilled to join you on your journey.