Clients Behaving Badly: It’s Time for a Code of Conduct

A call-to-action for advertisers to start treating agency partners with respect

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At its core, agencies are a people business and companies invest in talent from acquisition through development and retention. Anyone in a client service business understands the benefits and challenges of the associated dynamics—people coming together to collaborate and create work that will drive impact and business results.

And yet, we are living in a time where some have really lost sight of the fundamentals and how to treat people with civility, kindness and candor.

At the 4A’s, we connect daily with the agency community across all functions and sizes. We’re fortunate to have a broad purview as well as a front-row seat to understand what’s happening and remain on the pulse of agencies. And as of late, we are increasingly hearing about the misconduct and negative experiences (i.e: clients behaving badly, treating agency talent disparagingly and in inappropriate ways).

Given the current economic volatility we are witnessing amidst the lingering effects of Covid-19, contradictory headlines about the job market and turmoil across several sectors (i.e: auto strike), advertisers must look to agencies for help rather than treat them as a scapegoat. While client-agency relationships were particularly strong in 2020 and 2021, as people joined together amid a global crisis, the after-effects are pushing behaviors to the opposite end of the spectrum.

A code of conduct

Increasing levels of bad behavior leads to one clear solution: We need a code of conduct for clients and agencies to align on expectations and behaviors connected to shared values.

Some people need to be forced to behave appropriately and treat partners with respect for the services they provide. Several agency CEOs have reached out to share that in the absence of an industry code of conduct related to client-agency relationships, they are building expectations into their client contracts and MSAs due to a lack of integrity and bad behavior. That’s how tenuous the situation is today. Some have also suggested the 4A’s create a list of the “bad clients” to spare others from the issues they have endured.

Both marketers and agencies spend a great amount of time, energy and expense establishing a relationship, including conducting the initial agency search to find the right partner. Why spend all that time and money on finding and working with an agency just to allow the relationship to decay over time? Ensuring the longevity and continuity of the client-agency relationship is critical for ongoing business success.

As technological advances continue to accelerate, the pace and velocity of work create both excitement and trepidation. It’s the latter leading to tension and bad behaviors as people shift to survival mode.

Motivating agencies 

From a recent 4A’s, ANA and Advertiser Perceptions study on the cost of pitching, we learned that clients (marketers, procurement leads and agency relationship leads) cited the number one reason they start an agency review is that a new agency is highly motivated to deliver. Threatening to lose business rather than being open with communication on the needs and expectations is now considered more motivating. This is concerning, as agencies are often being treated poorly with the situation continuing to worsen, thus having an increasingly negative impact on the talent needed to deliver the work.

Clients want the best talent for their business. During my time as an agency CEO, clients would tell me they wanted their business to be the destination account in the agency—the most desired to work on. I always reminded them of the actions required to be the sought-after account.

Here’s what it takes to be a true partner that we can all work and live by each and every day:

  • Be human: Treat others with respect and empathy.
  • Be transparent: Frequent communication that treats the team as an extension of your own with consistent feedback.
  • Be fair: Provide reasonable compensation and terms.
  • Be decisive: Ensure clarity on the key decision-maker, budgets and deliverables.
  • Be vulnerable: Open up about where you lack experience or knowledge and ask questions to learn.
  • Be candid: Own your issues and acknowledge organizational challenges.
  • Be bold: Lean into innovation and get comfortable taking risks.
  • Be curious: Embrace the power of creativity to produce business-building solutions.

More recommended reading: Jared Belsky, CEO of Acadia and author of the recently published book, You Get the Agency You Deserve, provides thoughtful guidance for clients on how to get the most from their agency partners. He explores 20 practical and emotional lessons to maximize agency and partner relationships.

No respect means no trust and no trust means it will be challenging to achieve business goals. If the client does not respect the agency, they will not trust your work—a signal that it’s the right time to move on.

We urgently need better behavior, but we’re past the point of trying to get clients to consistently understand the situation. It’s time for an industry code of conduct to ensure people within agencies are treated appropriately.

Enough is enough.