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What’s Your Client/Agency Relationship Type?

Christine Downton - Observatory International Christine Downton Managing Partner, London August 19, 2020

Client/agency relationships generally fall into eight types. Christine Downton from The Observatory International identify the classic behaviour models.

We’ve all completed the odd relationship survey in our youth. What’s your relationship like? You know, “Answer these 10 questions to tell if he/she’s ‘the one’…”

Agency/client interactions are necessarily more formal and complex but you can perform a similar kind of assessment. By watching the way that brands interact with their agencies, often for months at a time, it’s easy to tell whether the relationship is going well, needs help or whether it’s time for a pitch.

The complication is that multiple behaviours can be evident within any one brand or company – there are often marked differences in style between Marketing teams and Procurement, for example.

Relationship types

Generally, however, relationship types tend to fall into one of eight categories – listed from bad to excellent:

  • Broken: A relationship that is terminal, trust is lost and there is generally a lack of positive dialog. In our experience no good work has been bought or created for some time.
    You know your relationship is broken when the client starts to write their own ads!
  • Master Servant (or JFDI): Surprisingly we’ve observed this kind of relationship more often than you would think, even in otherwise well run and established companies. The client has a very specific point of view on what they want, leaving the agency very little room for creativity and innovation. The results are generally sub-optimal – because collective thinking isn’t brought to problem solving and the agency teams start to lack confidence in their recommendations.
    You know your relationship is ‘Master Servant’ when there is very high turnover in the agency teams because people just don’t want to work on the account – however prestigious the brand might be.
  • Task Master: This type of relationship is characterised by the client constantly phoning the agency to do everything and anything at a moment’s notice. The scope of work goes out the window and the relationship becomes executional until it falls over. Physically and financially – that additional work has to be paid for at some stage.
    You know when you are working for a Task Master when everything is about delivery and quality becomes less important.
  • Way Too Close: This kind of behaviour is often more visible among the more junior members of client teams. Lock-down will inevitably have curtailed this type of relationship but in previous times they would spend excessive amounts of time at the agency – often days at a time and tend to refer to it as ‘my agency’. In some markets, they expect the agency to pamper them.
    You know you are Way Too Close when you stop being objective and become too defensive and protective of the agency.
  • Socially Distant: The client is over-protective of their organisation and agencies only get the information they need to perform a given task resulting in a lack of real partnership. Good results can be delivered on occasion, but clients will rarely squeeze the added value out of the agency. Overall, it is counterproductive – the agency needs to know and understand the business challenges and objectives to be able to come up with appropriate solutions to deliver brand growth.
    You know you are Socially Distant when agencies only get the information they need to perform their task.
  • Too Close: The client has become too reliant on the agency. It’s a pleasant environment to work in but can get particularly awkward during fee negotiation or performance reviews. Nevertheless, it is possible to produce some strong work.
    You know you are Too Close when you stop thinking for yourselves as a client. 
  • Firm But Fair: This relationship is more formal and professional. Boundaries are respected and the scope of work followed. It is a rare relationship to find. It can be effective but because it is somewhat sterile it often won’t lead to particularly creative or ground-breaking work.
    You know you are in a Firm But Fair relationship when you still don’t know each other’s coffee preference.
  • Partnership: this is the ideal and sadly not seen as frequently as we would like but, when it does exist, produces great work in a constructive and collaborative way. Client and agency work as one team and focus on the same goals and problems. Both sides enjoy producing great work and working together.
    You know you are in a Partnership when you are consistently producing great work and enjoy working together.

Great client and agency relationships produce great work so getting the relationship right is essential to deliver maximum brand growth. Analysing and understanding your type can be a vital tool in ensuring you get the most out of client/agency partnerships.

To find out more about our agency relationship management services please click here.

The full article was first published by Campaign and can be found here.

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