Both sides now: a look at the tension between clients and agencies


Many agency suits, strategists and even creatives switch from agency to client side at some point in their career. Maybe it’s the ability to focus on one thing and do it well or the opportunity to call the shots on what gets done. Often, it’s just that greater sense of job stability and structure that corporate life appears to offer.

When I started out as a marketer, the glamour and pace of the agency world really appealed. I envied them having the freedom to come up with clever ideas, every day working on cool and exciting projects, with the latest technology and hanging out in uber-creative environments. I, on the other hand, spent my life writing memos and business cases, analysing research and data, coordinating internal meetings and sign-offs while wrangling suppliers, distributors and sales teams. From my dull grey office-cubicle, the grass definitely looked greener on the other side.

Over the next 20 years, as I moved up the ranks (and age brackets), I found myself falling less and less in love with the agency world. Having worked with dozens of agencies – across advertising, digital, design, brand and DM – I found myself constantly frustrated at their focus on the coolest, newest and shiniest things.

I seemed to be the financier of their obsession to come up with the most out there ideas, win as many awards as possible, be the first to try the latest technology and to out-do something someone else had done.

It’s not that the work wasn’t great. Most of it was brilliant and ultimately very successful, but often it felt like I had to work really hard to make it ‘fit for purpose’. Mostly agencies showed me extremely clever execution ideas and left it up to me to determine whether the ideas would communicate the messages and deliver the results needed. If I felt it didn’t (but had potential to), I got actively involved in dictating design and copy changes. This was often a battle of wills, as they focused on preserving the creative idea while I fought to improve ROI. No doubt they were just as frustrated with me as I was with them.

Ironically, though many clients covet agency life, few make the switch across. It’s more common the other way.

In 2011, I had the opportunity to swap my CMO role for life as a strategist in a branding and design agency. I’ve always been a strategic marketer and I liked the idea of being able to work across multiple clients and industries to solve diverse business and communication problems. I was determined to use my own experiences with agencies to drive a client-led approach to delivering effective work.

Over seven years, I’ve learnt that there is a lot of grind behind the creative exterior that agencies let clients see. I work just as hard now as I did when I was on the corporate side and (surprise, surprise) the bulk of my work is neither exciting nor glamorous. I’m always blown away at how passionate creatives are about producing amazing work. And they are way more strategic than we give them credit for. They prefer to let the work speak for itself rather than attempt to articulate the logic they followed.

And many clients have unrealistic expectations of what can be achieved, by when, and at what budget. In hindsight, I know I did. Often this comes about because account management teams fall over themselves to deliver, constantly raising the expectation that clients have. And clients often expect agencies to just know stuff about their industry, their business or their other marketing activities but they don’t take the time to tell us about it.

There will always be a tension between clients and agencies and in many ways this is healthy, driving each of us to do more.

We may think differently and speak a different language but we need what each of us brings to the relationships. Understanding just what each party brings – and respecting it – can build a trust that creates powerful work. Like the words of a good Joni Mitchell song, it always comes down to good communications, a little compromise, a whole lot of empathy and a shared vision of what you can do together.

Once you’ve found it, hold onto it so both businesses can prosper.

Steven’s Advice:

To agencies on working better with clients

  • Take the time to learn the client’s business and their key challenges, opportunities and their strategy. These are the ‘why’ behind every brief and if you can deliver on these clients will always love you for it.
  • Invest in training your people on explaining their thinking using the client’s language. Give them skills and tools to connect creative ideas with how these will lead to the desired business outcomes clients are paying for.
  • Push clients to think beyond what they know. They’ve done things that have worked and often look for you to do the tried and tested. Show them why doing something di erent can deliver something better.

To clients on working better with agencies

  • Brief in the problem or opportunity, not just the solution you think is needed. This allows the agency to think about all the best possible solutions to achieve the results.
  • Invest in the relationship. Take time to ensure your agency knows your business, your audiences, your channels, what’s important to you and what you expect from them. Let them know about the strategies and bigger picture their works ts into.
  • Invest in the relationship. Take time to ensure your agency knows your business, your audiences, your channels, what’s important to you and what you expect from them. Let them know about the strategies and bigger picture their works ts into.

Insight Creative is a branding and design agency with over 40 years’ experience in developing and working with some of New Zealand’s best brands. They are a strategic creative agency, delivering big thinking and effective design – across both print and online mediums – that changes perceptions, drives behaviours and delivers results for their clients. insightcreative.co.nz

This story is part of a content partnership with Insight Creative.

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