It’s Not You, It’s Me: Avoiding An Agency Breakup

As the late, great Glenn Frey sang in the Eagles classic “Already Gone”, “So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains/And we never even know we have the key”. As this can be applied to life, so too can be applied to your relationship with your marketing agency.

A few weeks ago in my blog ‘Is Your Agency Holding You Hostage’ I talked about ways that agencies can hold their clients hostage through ineffectual marketing practices and poor reporting. In that article, I unequivocally pointed the finger of blame at marketing agencies. This time, I’m going to take a different approach. While I’m not going to point the finger of blame at clients—after all, clients are the ones paying for services, so it’s not exactly their responsibility to ensure they get good service–I am going to examine ways that clients can improve their relationships with agencies.

The thing is, all relationships have two people (or two parties) involved. And while it’s possible that one side of this relationship is just really, really terrible, it’s a lot more likely that there’s some dysfunction on both sides. So instead of jumping from agency to agency trying to the perfect fit that may not exist, it is often worth it to look inward and see if there is anything you can do to enhance, or salvage, a poor agency relationship.

Keep reading to help identify ways you may not realize you’re holding back the potential of your agency-client relationship, and what to do about them.

There is a Flaw in the Way You Communicate with Your Agency

I’ve been doing a bit of a series on the flaws in relationships between agencies and their clients. In these articles, I’ve featured the same two studies, which have proven to have the most valuable and relevant information on the subject. The first is the 2016 AdAge Reader’s Survey and the second is the 2014 survey of agencies and clients conducted by ad agency RPA. Check out some of the findings from these surveys that indicate miscommunications between clients and agencies.

2016 AdAge reader’s survey:

  • 41% of AdAge Readers consider “Improving Trust Between Marketers & Agencies” the most important marketing & advertising issue in 2016.
  • This makes relationships between marketers and agencies the fourth most important marketing and advertising issue, behind the following issues: Making marketing more efficient (55%), Improving creative excellence (54%), and Finding new ways to reach consumers as they block or skip ads (52%).

RPA, The Naked Truth:

  • Only 65% of clients felt their agencies truly understood their business.
    • 90% of agencies thought they truly understood their clients’ businesses.
  • Only 56% of clients felt their agencies understood how to drive sales for their brands.
    • 84% of agencies thought they understood how to drive sales for their clients’ brands.
  • Only 40% of clients thought their agencies did a good job of demonstrating ROI.
    • 76% of agencies thought they did a good job of demonstrating ROI.

What these statistics show me is that sometimes a client needs to tell their agency that there is a problem. It could be as simple as a misunderstanding or lack of knowledge. This isn’t an excuse for agencies to underperform, but it is important to recognize that they likely have an ‘expertise bias’ that can make it difficult to understand why, from your perspective, you’re not getting what you want.

3 Ways to Break Your Agency Out of Their Expertise Bias

In order to help your agency see things from your perspective and understand the ways they are not best serving you, consider the following solutions:

  1. Share issues and concerns as soon as they arise
  2. Get together every once in a while
  3. Try annual or bi-annual assessments

Share issues and concerns as soon as they arise

This is the easiest, and hopefully most obvious, of the solutions. If you’re not already doing this, you can bet that your agency has no idea what’s on your mind. Be proactive, honest, and clear. Are you unhappy with results? With meeting cadences? Quality of work? Say it as soon as you think it. In doing this, you’ll make sure that there are no repressed issues, which will snowball and take your marketing down with it. If your agency doesn’t immediately repair the situation or start a dialogue to further understand your issue, ditch them ASAP. But, similar to any other relationship, don’t expect your agency to be a mind reader.

Get together every once in a while

I know that travel is difficult, and sometimes it feels like a waste of time. What can’t you talk about over the phone that you can talk about in person? Well, the technical answer here is nothing. There are things you shouldn’t talk about over the phone, though. Plus, there are so many intangible benefits to meeting in person. For one, it increases the human-to-human aspect of your relationship, allowing you to see each other more as partners. It can also help to eliminate some of the miscommunications that can happen via email or text message. Finally, and most importantly, it will help your agency team empathize more with your needs when they see you in the flesh and can have more candid conversations about your concerns.

If travel is too difficult, try webcams. Still, there’s no replacement for the effect of getting face-to-face with your agency and getting to know them as people. Save these in person meetings for important kickoffs (such as kicking off a new strategy or kicking off your relationship altogether) and for creative or strategic brainstorming.

Try annual or bi-annual agency assessments

The agency assessment is a tactic suggested by Judy Neer, the president and CEO of Pile & Co., a consulting firm that specializes in agency-client relationships.

So, what is an agency assessment? Think of it as similar to the yearly review you likely conduct with your employees. Do you only have a yearly review if someone is underperforming? No, it’s a universal best practice that so many companies adopt because it allows you to take a step back and think about things from a big picture perspective, rather than day to day issues. Employers use this time to touch base with their employees and cover high-level needs from both parties as well as ensuring they’re on the same page in terms of goals and future plans.

This is exactly what an annual agency assessment would look like. Rather than talking about why your agency didn’t help you hit your projected leads, you talk about your visions for future success and how your agency can help you get there. In other words, you’re not talking about performance (something that might be better left to a regular in-person meeting), you’re purely looking at the quality and alignment of your relationship.

In this kind of assessment, you can cover issues such as:

  • Clarifying your business model and goals as well as your products and services.
  • Evaluating your agency’s role – maybe you want them to be more strategic, more transformative, etc.
  • Discussing agency team members and the quality of your relationship with each of these members.
  • Examine your current strategy & idea generation processes, finding areas for improvement.

Plus, you can also get candid feedback from your agency on what they think is working or not working about your relationship. For best results, get an unbiased third party to help mediate this conversation.

Final Thoughts

If you’re paying an agency to deliver results and actualize your potential, but they’re not, take some time to consider whether or not there are any ways that you can contribute to remedying the situation. Be a proactive and communicative client and you’ll find that you’ll likely have a more proactive and communicative agency. If they don’t step it up, you’ll know it’s time to say goodbye.
Did you like this blog? Let us know why (or why not) in the comments. In the meantime, check out our blog “Trust Issues in the Marketing Industry: A Road Map to Rebuilding Relationships” to learn the most common areas of agency-client miscommunications—and how to resolve them.

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