Collaboration or Confrontation: What Makes a Good Agency-Client Relationship

Written by Kimberly MacArthur Graham on January 22, 2015

Few things are harder to say than good-bye. No matter whether it’s a death or a divorce, parting ways can be emotionally draining and often, financially taxing as well. If only we had better hindsight, or clearer crystal balls, and could see a good relationship sour down the road! Since we can’t, most of us continue to learn from experience how to identify a good versus bad relationship.

As critical as family and personal relationships are, in many of our lives, business relationships occupy as much or more of our time. Like our personal relationships, they should be approached carefully, monitored and nurtured, and finally, exited if that provides the healthiest outcome.

After five years of running Layer Cake Creative and a couple decades of working in-house or independently prior to that. . . I have some experience in the agency-client relationships. I’ve been party to the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Because I’ve been on either side of the table, I understand the viewpoints (and pain points) of both.  In honor of the new year, and everyone’s promises to improve their health and happiness, here are 3 things to review before jumping into a new relationship with a client or a creative agency.

 1 – Culture and vision | Everyone talks about having “compatible cultures,” but what does it mean? To me, it means much more than getting along. It means that your workflow, process, and values match up. Do you agree on the value time away from work versus 24/7 availability, the benefits of collaboration versus “taking charge,” etc.?  Discuss in advance how you work best, and see if you’ll mesh or just make a mess.

 2 – Needs| If a client needs more than an agency can give, in terms of quality, quantity, or responsiveness — or conversely, when a client wants less input than an agency wants to give, trouble is a-brewing. Make sure that you are well-matched in all of these categories to ensure that everyone feels stimulated, appreciated, and satisfied.

 3 – Goals | Make sure that your goals for the project and relationship are aligned. This does not mean they’re the same; but that they’re compatible and, to an extent, transparent. Be honest about your desire to grow if you’re an agency or to sell the company if you’re a client. This is a partnership, and partners need to know they are playing on the same team – and winning.

One final note about communication. Yes, it’s good! But I think that we all rely too heavily on email, which can be misinterpreted and misdirected to wreak all kinds of havoc. By the same token, text messages are either loved or loathed – find out first! But do communicate, clearly and constantly. Like any relationship, a client-agency relationship is most apt to derail when people stop talking – even if it’s a painful conversation. Sadly, I know about that, too. Another blog for another day. . .

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