You could argue that the quality of the client-agency relationship is the single biggest predictor of success. Get it right, and you’ll enjoy fame, leads, customers and awards. Get it wrong, and you could waste heaps of money, miss incredible opportunities and even end up hating your job. It’s just not worth letting this relationship fail. Read on for the comprehensive guide to building an amazing client-agency relationship.

In a world where AI can draft copy, produce artwork, and brainstorm campaign ideas, the human elements of working with an agency must remain at the heart of any client-agency relationship. Building a genuine connection between the two teams and a deep understanding of a client’s sector and business will become even more critical as many agencies turn to AI.

What is a client-agency relationship and why is it important?

A client-agency relationship is a tangible and intangible agreement between an organisation (the client) and the company providing PRSEOsocial media or any other marketing service (the agency). The relationship starts when the client briefs the agency, continues through the pitch and selection process to when the work is awarded, and a contract is signed.

But the relationship goes much further than this, covering how the client and the agency work together. This includes the deliverables under the agreement; the rhythm of meetings, reports, and interactions; how ideas are brainstormed, agreed upon, and implemented; how much collaboration there is between the two parties; how feedback is delivered and how the contract eventually comes to an end.

The client-agency relationship is a critical determinant of how successful the work is, how happy the client is with the results, and how much the team members on both sides enjoy going to work.

What makes a good client-agency relationship?

The client and the agency have an equal role to play in developing a successful client-agency relationship. The best relationships share some common characteristics: trust, collaboration, chemistry, mutual respect, accountability, and honesty.

The agency’s objective is to help the client achieve its goals. And the client must work with the agency to facilitate this.

The agency’s role

Learn the client’s business

To deliver the best work, an agency really needs to understand the client’s business, their objectives, their USPs, why their customers have chosen to work with them, and what the client needs from the relationship.

To deliver great work and develop a strong relationship, the agency needs to understand the challenges the client is facing and what they’re trying to achieve. The agency needs to ensure they’re up to date with developments and news within their clients’ sectors.

Set clear KPIs

These should be carefully thought out, and they should be realistic, achievable, and agreed with the client in advance. It’s highly unlikely that the agency will deliver outstanding work that leaves the client delighted if success hasn’t been defined.

Hire and train experts

Clients choose agencies with specialist skills, networks, and knowledge. And so, it is incumbent on the agency to ensure their team is up to the task.

Have the right systems in place

The only way an agency can deliver a consistently high level of service is by having suitable systems in place. Good systems (from filing to approvals to onboarding new team members) prevent costly mistakes.

Get it in writing

Whatever piece of work the client agrees to, make sure they agree to it in writing, with clear parameters as to what is included. This ensures that everyone is on the same page. If an approach has been decided verbally or discussed in a meeting, the agency should follow up with an email outlining their understanding of what was agreed upon.

They should not start the work until the client has confirmed this. Sometimes, the paperwork is the boring bit, and it’s tempting to get stuck into the creative process straightaway, but clearly defining the scope is vital to both sides.

Be an extension of the team

The best relationships are when the client sees the agency as a trusted extension of their team, an advisor embedded in the culture and direction of the business. This relies on regular updates and knowledge-sharing from client to agency.

Report back honestly

Keep the client informed with regular reports. These should cover progress towards KPIs and include qualitative feedback on how the project or account is going. If a journalist hates the pitch, the agency should share this with the client and tell them why. If the designer thinks a brief is too dull for the target audience, hold a focus group and feed back to the client.

Be creative, enthusiastic, and opportunistic

The best agencies constantly challenge the status quo (such a cheesy phrase!), proactively look for opportunities to delight their clients, and generally love the work.

Don’t leave them hanging

No one likes being left in the dark, and that goes for clients too. The agency needs to keep the lines of communication open, provide activity updates and be clear about timelines for completing activities.

The client’s role

Trust the agency

For an agency to do the best possible job, the client needs to trust them enough to share their confidential information with them, knowing that they will keep it confidential. (Remember, there is a contract in place with a confidentiality clause).

Help them

The client knows their business better than any agency ever will. The best in-house marketers will recognise that this can be a mutually beneficial relationship – working with an agency can be invaluable in helping them achieve both their marketing and personal career objectives.

They know both parties will benefit from a great client-agency relationship, so they help their agency. They remove roadblocks and help them access the right people in their business to make the marketing strategy a winner.

Provide honest feedback

When you spend a lot of time with someone there are bound to be differences in opinion. Couples quarrel, and (likely sometimes) so will clients and agencies. The client-agency relationship isn’t always smooth, and bumps in the road are to be expected. Be honest about any issues that arise, as that’s the only way to resolve them.

Be responsive

Clients should respond to agency queries and give them feedback on ideas. We’re always open to client feedback or being challenged on our ideas; that’s how we improve.

Pay on time

Chasing clients for money is awkward and takes us away from focusing on delivering results. There is a contract, and the agency is meeting its end of the bargain. The client should meet theirs and pay on time. Please.

Respect the business

Agencies are businesses too, which means they can’t gift their clients unlimited resources to work on disorganised campaigns. The contract will have a certain number of hours or certain deliverables, and some room will be built in for flexibility. But it won’t be unlimited, and delays add up.

Respect the agency’s relationships

Agencies spend years building great relationships with journalists and influencers. These relationships are crucial to that agency’s ability to deliver their work – but they can be easily damaged by clients not showing up for interviews, being rude or not delivering on a promise. That affects the agency’s whole business.

Things both the client and the agency should do

Get to know each other

Whether socialising or spending time outside regular calls to find out more about each other. It builds trust and rapport and gives the agency insight into the client’s business that they might not get otherwise.

Be human

Recognise that whichever side of the client-agency relationship you are on, you are dealing with human beings on the other side. These mere mortals might put the occasional foot wrong, but be generous, respectful, and polite in how you deal with them.

Let the relationship evolve

A good client-agency relationship should never stagnate. It should grow as the client grows and evolve to keep pace with changes in the marketing landscape. The client should keep the agency up to date with developments so the agency can provide ideas, counsel, and support while the client’s business grows and evolves.

Be respectful of time

Thinking about deadlines and working hours and setting realistic deadlines and timescales for campaigns are important on both sides. Putting undue pressure on every activity or constantly asking for tight turnarounds won’t get the best results.

Be realistic with budgets

The agency shouldn’t over- or under-sell its services, and the client should compensate fairly. Use our guide to PR costs as a basis for working out budgets.

End the relationship like a grown-up

Even good client-agency relationships may not last forever. Things change. Companies change. Agencies change. Requirements change. Budgets change. Or maybe the brief just needs a refresh. Whatever the reason for either party needing to end the relationship, do it with professionalism. Start with a phone call. Follow up with an email. Thank them. And work like grown-ups to reach a happy conclusion.

What factors may hinder agency-client relationships?

You can usually spot well in advance when an agency-client relationship is set to fail. Here are some of the most common warning signs:

The brief is too loose

If the client doesn’t know what they want, there is no way that the agency will know. Clients need to nail that brief: what are they trying to achieve? What is the budget? What is the context? How will success be judged?

There isn’t enough collaboration

If the client appoints their agency and then steps back to await results or if the agency runs a creative marathon with the brief without understanding it, the relationship will fail. The client is the expert in their business. The agency is the expert in its discipline. The best results come when these two areas of expertise are brought together.

Unrealistic expectations

If agencies expect spokespeople always to be available when they still have full-time jobs to do, or if clients expect national media coverage from every pitch, everyone will be disappointed. If the agency advises that something won’t work, they say that for a reason. Setting clear objectives and having a strong, honest relationship with clear lines of communication will help.

Someone pretends to know more than they do

No reasonable client expects their agency to be experts on all parts of their organisation and industry. And no reasonable agency expects its client to understand the technical ins and outs of their specialisms. It’s a cliché, but taking the approach of no question is a bad question really helps everyone to understand fully, leading ultimately to better results.

Everyone’s too polite

Sometimes, or quite often, someone must hear the truth. Maybe that story the client has their heart set on will never catch the media’s attention. Or perhaps the agency didn’t quite understand the client’s messaging in a piece of copy. Or someone misspoke in a meeting. Whatever it is, be polite, but not too polite – communication is vital, and feedback must be honest and clear.

Lack of communication

Keep talking, keep catching up – if there’s silence on either side, then there’s a breakdown that needs to be addressed – and quickly.

Interested in starting up a PR, SEO or social media relationship? Drop us a line.  


Heather Baker

Written by Heather Baker, CEO at Definition

Updated by Ellie St George-Yorke Director of Client Relations at Definition.