There Are 4 Types of Agency-Client Relationships. Which One Are You In?

How you function, or not, with partners informs craft and culture

Who are we to judge? Not everybody wants Lions and Effies.
Illustration: Gustav Dejert/Getty Images

Over the course of my career, I’ve seen all sorts of agency-client relationships. I believe long-standing partnerships are thanks to huge amounts of trust, communication and understanding. Trust is especially important. Almost all clients and agencies (98 percent, in fact) believe that a relationship that’s based on trust leads to better work.

But let’s be honest, not every agency-client relationship is perfect. Here are the four types of agency-client relationships we all may be in (whether we want to admit it or not).

The crappy agency with the great client

Hard to spot (since every agency thinks it’s great), but this is way more common than you think. I see it all the time. Agencies love to criticize their clients. “My client doesn’t want to do great work.” “My client doesn’t have a famous brand.” “My client doesn’t have money.” “My client doesn’t get it.” “My client blah blah blah.” Enough already. Stop complaining about your client and ask yourself how the agency can get better. And do it fast, before the client calls the “good guys.” Now, if you’re a great client with a crappy agency, it’s up to you to ask for a drastic change. Tell your agency you expect more, and that from now on, you want great work every single time. But also give them a chance—almost every agency deserves a second chance.

Anselmo Ramos
Illustration: Alex Fine

The great agency with the crappy client

While not common, sometimes it happens. If you’re a great small agency, you probably need to be patient and bite the bullet. You need to pay the bills. But try to educate your client and show what creativity can do. Convince them to put aside 5 percent of their budget to do some crazy stuff. You’re a great agency, you know what to do. If you’re a great big agency, I’m sure you’ve already tried to change your crappy client several times.

But also give them a chance—almost every client deserves a second chance. If nothing works, then fire them. Yes, agencies can also fire clients. The best ones do. What if you’re a crappy client with a great agency? Well, ask them why the work you’re getting is not as good as the other clients they have. They will probably tell you it’s your fault since great agencies are brutally honest.

Listen to them. Learn. Be open to change. Work together. Or say, “Do whatever you guys want,” and get out of the way.

The great agency-great client partnership

If you have this type of relationship, you’re set. They’re the Wiedens and the Nikes. The TBWAs and the Apples. They’re more than agency and client—they’re partners in crime. They’re aligned in their ambition. They want to create long-term brand value, shape culture and sell a lot of products along the way.

It looks like advertising heaven, but it’s not. This is actually the hardest relationship. There are disagreements and discussions, fights and frustration, crying and cursing. It’s like a real marriage. Not every day is great, but every day you make a conscious choice to stay together in the name of great work.

If you’re in this kind of relationship, be thankful. Take a moment to tell your partner how much you value what you’ve built together, and do whatever it takes to stick together. Go ahead and have an affair if it’s necessary. It will make you appreciate what you have even more. You’re part of 0.01 percent of the ad market. I just made up that number, but I’m sure it’s pretty close. But while we celebrate the beauty of a great agency and client combo, we can’t forget the infamous among us.

The crappy agency with the crappy client

This is actually the happiest relationship. Everything flows. Timelines are met. There are no problems. You can have two-hour lunches and still leave everyday at 5 p.m. and have dinner with the family. Hey, you can have a family!

After all, the crappy agency is delivering exactly what the crappy client wants. No questions asked. Congrats, you guys have found happiness in advertising, but enjoy it while it lasts, because the first problem the client has, the agency will be blamed. And the agency will say, “Hey, we just did exactly what you asked for!” And all of a sudden there are no fancy cocktails or front row seats that will save the account.

There are cases, though, where both the crappy agency and the crappy client are aligned. And if the crappy work is kind of working and kind of selling and will guarantee everybody’s job, then it’s totally fine. Who are we to judge? Not everybody wants Lions and Effies.

Let’s face it—all agencies and clients are in one of these relationships, whether we tell each other or not, and whether we want to fix it or not. So, which relationship are you in? Share this and tag your agency or client. I’m kidding. Please don’t do that (unless you’re in relationship No. 3).

Specs
Claim to fame Anselmo Ramos, co-founder of David, knows how to knit, has written three unfilmed screenplays and, because he has watched all of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s films, he never retreats, never surrenders.
Base Miami
Twitter @anselmoramos

This story first appeared in the Oct. 9, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.