By Gillian Rightford

I’m sure you’ve heard that the agency-client relationship is really important to ensure you get the best creative output. You may even be in an agency-client relationship, on one side or the other, and chances are that it might not be an easy relationship – they seldom are.

But a recent report called “A is for Alliances”, published by the IPA (Institute of Practitioners in Advertising), in the UK, makes for compelling reading in this sphere.



(viz. alliances) lead to better commercial creativity, and only the fittest survive and thrive, so it is in our best interest to put energy and effort into making them better.

This is a two-way process but the main responsibility lies with client marketing and procurement – because clients get the advertising, and the agencies, they deserve.


In the report, Apprais in the UK reckons that there is as much as a 37% differential in the quality of creative output between poor and good client-agency relationships.



We know already that better creative is a better business building tool – more effective, more efficient, better ROI. (If you’re still unconvinced, please read The Case for Creativity) In fact, in The Case for Creativity, which summarized twenty years of academic research, the conclusion of one study is that whilst some marketers (and heaven forbid, account managers too) think creative work is risky, it is so much better at generating a predictable positive ROI, that not running creative communications work is in fact the risk choice.


So adding the Apprais research and The Case for Creativity findings together, we get a simple equation:

Good relationship = Good work = Better results.


'Healthy agency client relationships can stand the test of time.' (Image Source: Road Lodge print campaign by TBWAHuntLascaris)


In the report, the IPA has come up with 4 basic drivers of good partnerships.

They are:
1. Transparent and effective approval processes
2. Mutually agreed and maintained timing plans
3. Honest and open briefings with clear business objectives, budget, timing and brand guidelines
4. Respectful and collaborative behaviours built on shared goals and rewards.

So simple. And yet, and yet, and yet…so often these simple guidelines are not in place, leading to dysfunctional agency-client relationships.


Some examples:

>  Many briefs are terrible. Lacking in information, too long, no clear thinking, prescriptive, pedantic, clumsy, no insight.

Many times the business objectives and the brand objectives are muddled and are not clear.

>  Consumer understanding is limited and basic or super surface-level.

>  These horrible briefs are often emailed; not even presented in person.

>  Agency sometimes questions the briefs, but this creates a disharmony – “why are they being so argumentative”?

>  Deadlines bear no resemblance to reality – they are imposed from the outside in, because of an internal deadline.

>  Then the work that comes back is used as a guide to what the client team doesn’t want, doesn’t like.

>  There are few evaluation skills, few skills that help in giving constructive feedback. B.t.w. – “it makes me want to vomit” is not a good one.

>  Approvals become about second guessing the bigger boss, and then the next bigger boss, because many of the corporate marketing teams operate in a culture of fear and ‘what would s/he like’?

>  And would you believe it, because of all of this to-ing and fro-ing, deadlines are missed.

>  And the agency is “useless”.

>  Many of these marketers and agencies willingly submit to relationship audits, every month, twice a year, whatever, to ‘measure the relationship’. Issues are raised, concerns are flagged. Until the next audit, when the same issues are raised and concerns are flagged.

I watched Gotz Ulmer, Executive Creative Director at Germany’s best agency, Jung von Matt, at the Loeries International Seminar on Creativity. He said they have three simple rules for working with clients. They ask:

1. Are we making money?
2. Are we doing great work?
3. Are we having fun?

If they can’t answer ‘Yes’ to at least 2, then it’s not the right agency-client partnership for them, and they resign the business.


1. Put skills in place to make it work.

2. Then, get some Partnership Principles in place.

And move forward happily – or don’t.

What are these magical skills, I hear you cry?

Interestingly, I believe the same set of skills is required by both parties that are at the coalface – namely the agency account manager/strategist team, and the marketing manager. They are the fulcrum of the relationship and need to manage up, manage resources, manage conflict and manage the risk.

Some of the skills are ‘hard’, some are ‘soft’. This is not a complete list, but here are some:


  1. Brand strategy
  2. Positioning
  3. Segmentation
  4. Consumer behaviour
  5. Real insights
  6. Writing exceptional briefs
  7. Evaluating creative
  8. Integrated media options (including digital),
  9. Budget management.



  1. Giving constructive feedback,
  2. Being inspiring,
  3. Managing conflict in a positive way,
  4. Selling up the organisation,
  5. Effective communication,
  6. Body language,
  7. Building teams,
  8. Presenting well.


Honestly, if you are managing clients , or are managing an agency relationship without being super skilled in these areas, you are wasting other people’s time and money.

The whole point of having an agency is that they are able to bring to the business a degree of commercial creativity that will drive your business forward.

Work together well, and both your businesses will thrive. Work together badly, and both your businesses will suffer. Or at least not do as well as they could.



Gillian’s CV is a mix of marketing, advertising, and management. She obtained a Business Science (Honours) degree in Marketing from UCT, worked for Perry & Associates (Marketing consulting), then headed into the creative world, doing account management and strategy for below and above the line agencies, before becoming Managing Director of Hercules/DMB&B/D’Arcy, and then Group Managing Director of Lowe Bull. She started Adtherapy in 2007, a company that aims to help marketers and agencies optimise their creative output, through improved skills, structure, strategy, and relationships, amongst other things. Gillian also lectures Integrated Marketing Communications at the School of Management Studies at the University of Cape Town, as well as to various advertising schools.

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