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: actively.
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:
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.
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.
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 Grow With Studio we 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.