What makes a client-agency relationship go wrong?

On a skiing trip earlier this year I found myself sharing a chalet with an eclectic bunch of people, two of whom were web designers and had spent time working both agency-side and in-house.

When does the client-agency relationship start to go wrong? asks Alicia Mellish
When does the client-agency relationship start to go wrong? asks Alicia Mellish
I asked them the question that I ask many people with their experience: what, in your opinion, makes a good or a bad agency? 

The unhesitating speed with which they both came back to me on what makes a bad agency gave me real food for thought.  

Their number one bugbear? When an agency team thinks they know better than the client.

Now, anyone working in a client-agency relationship is aware of the healthy tension that such a working relationship brings, and from all my own reading on business, management and marketing this is no bad thing.  

But that couple’s observation made me realise that the primary reason for a healthy tension slipping into an unhealthy one comes about when both client and agency feel the other is not listening to them.
The way I see it, the client knows its brand like no other – and its agency should draw upon this knowledge and in most (not all) cases defer to its expertise in this area. 

But the agency is engaged by the client for its own unique expertise – its unrivalled ability to influence a brand’s target audience, drive awareness, affect purchase behaviour and so on and so forth.
The partnership works best when both parties respect what the other brings to the party. 

As soon as one becomes frustrated with the other, then the working partnership starts to break down.
However, with this being a transactional relationship, it is up to the agency to prove and justify its worth.

It is, after all (and thank god) a free market and the client can procure services, not just from any PR agency, but from any agency within the marketing mix.  

As an industry, PR has been notoriously bad at demonstrating its tangible value despite the fact that we all know it exists.  

It comes down to the individual agency to develop campaigns that are effective and integrate metrics that demonstrate the value of your work.  

If a client struggles to understand the value of your campaign, then you haven’t invested enough time with your client to take them through it, or you haven’t developed the right campaign. 

PR professionals need to keep pushing themselves forward; to keep looking externally to what other marketing disciplines are doing and how they are demonstrating value.   

Alicia Mellish is managing director of Stir PR

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