In praise of the client agency relationship

The next in our series Tales from the Front Line, insights from our very own independent marketing specialist and great friend of Sable&Hawkes

A better class of biscuit

We broke up with our agency recently. Which is a bit sad. Well I say broke up, it was all very mature and reasonable, more of a conscious uncoupling (to coin a phrase) than the usual shouting match, You know the sort of thing, a snippy remark which quickly descends into sobbing and arguments about who keeps the dog (‘no you have him and all the poo bags…’). We have gone from contractual obligation to casual hook ups. They will definitely be seeing other people and after a period of adjustment we will be getting back on the scene ourselves.

In the end it was the classic, ‘we both want different things’ type of break up…they wanted bigger clients with more money to spend, we just wanted our work done.

Which was Nice

It got me thinking about the perennial issues that the client and agency relationship poses for both sides, and more than that, how has it changed in recent years? Is the digital agency any different from the traditional full service, above the line outfit? On the one hand the names have changed. It’s no longer ‘Cuthbert, Dibble & Grub’ (founders names used in a thinly veiled bid to make the agency sound like a law firm and give itself the same professional status). Now we have, like the terrible team names used on The Apprentice, things like ‘Synergy’, ’Tenacity’ ‘Ignite’ and ‘Evolve’. In fact, these are terrible names used by teams on The Apprentice…I looked them up, but you get the point.

Relationships between client and agency have sometimes been fun, sometimes fractious and always a bit fragile. But have they changed?

In the old days it was all lunch, shoddy invoicing, another lunch, a  bit of work, a big night out, the campaign presentation, more lunch, nice Christmas gifts with an even bigger night out, awards and the awards do and then the inevitable row about those shoddy invoices and, as night follows day, the break up.

But you needed agencies ‘cos they knew things. They understood what it took to get a TV ad made then approved by the regulators and eventually aired on the right channel, in front of the right audience. It was the same with radio and cinema. Ah, but that’s all admin I hear you cry, and you are correct, it is just a bit of process. It was a pain in the neck process, but with a bit of effort you could cover those bits yourself.

Without the agency though you would not have had the professional copy, the great design, the insightful strategy, and the creative ideas needed to make your campaign stand out. They also gave you objective evaluation of media, they found those tricky suppliers and had the specialist knowledge that kept you and your business up to date. They did all the leg work and the things that you did not want to do. Things like dealing with printers…my god they were worth their fee just for that (sorry printers). They also had nice biscuits and coffee at the meetings…who didn’t love going to the agencies for meetings? I say meeting, of course it was more presentation and stag do all rolled into one. You went for a mid-morning meeting, nipped out for lunch with the agency team and got home for breakfast the next day. Good times.

That’s the way the cookie crumbles

Now it’s not so much fun? Or is it? Was there more mystery then or now? Yes, we can all go on a Google course and we all know what sort of works, but to really understand the finer points you need experts. Just like you did a few years ago.

But maybe not…clients can do way more themselves these days, a smart in-house person can run SEO and SEM pretty well…but can they? What happens when you need a new approach? A new idea? Or, like this year, there is a new world to adapt to? What happens when Google change the algorithm and you are suddenly plunging down the search results page?

The more things change the more they stay the same. Agencies still know more than you – accept that and let them get on with it.

If there is one thing we have learned this year it is that you have to get your digital game right. That means a website that delivers for all users, can be found easily and is always being added to and developed. It means creating and using content that informs and attracts customers and works effectively on multiple platforms. That is where the experts come in. Customer expectations of what an online experience is are changing rapidly, they are often way ahead of companies, who are running hard just to catch up. Your agency is the de facto customer in your communication strategies and tactics.  You need their help to be effective online.


You will need to assess who the right agency is though. That isn’t as easy as it sounds. It is easier to set up as an agency now isn’t it? One person and their laptop can be a digital agency. A fancy website, smoke and mirrors language and some moody images, and you are in business.  Hasn’t that always been the case though?  Couldn’t one person and their Mac be a designer? Doesn’t make them a strategist, copywriter, PPC specialist, or analyst does it?

In the end the agency of today is just like the agency of yesterday – a collection of smart people, who are expert, helpful, and let’s be honest a bit annoying. These days they have too many beards and too many pool tables and slides in the office, but they’ll learn. I’m sure they even do the odd drunken night out if you ask them nicely (maybe it’s cos I am old that they don’t ask me). When it comes down to it, maybe it’s just the biscuits that are missing?

The core things remain – know what you want from your agency and how you will get the best from their skills and knowledge. That means doing your research and understanding what they do best. It also means you need to brief them well and let them get on with it without interference, but don’t be intimidated by them, it’s your money, and you can ask awkward questions. And maybe get down the pub with them every now and then…it will help a lot.