I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you. The folks at your agency are too nice to tell you the bad news themselves, so I’m here to take on that burden and lay it all on the table. It might be tough to hear, but in the long run, it’s for your benefit.
So before you get all outraged and pick up the phone to fire their asses, take a few minutes to read this post and consider their side of the client/agency relationship. I promise that in the end, it can only lead to a more productive, effective, and valuable partnership.
Now take a deep breath and read on.
So, you’ve hired an agency to help market your business, build your brand, and bring leads in the door. I’ve been on both sides of the fence; I owned a web design agency for five years before I sold it to focus on my online proposal software startup, Proposify. I’ve also hired agencies and freelancers to help with our design and marketing activities.
I can tell you from firsthand experience that both clients and agencies have common complaints about working together. And let me be clear that agencies are not always perfect angels either - they need to take responsibility for their actions.
But clients often bring their own baggage, misunderstandings, and lack of experience into the agency relationship and it ends up being counterproductive.
In short, clients, even those with good intentions, can sometimes get in the way of great work and valuable results.
How do you know if you’re a shitty client? Read on and see if any of these practices sound familiar to you:
Hiring an agency the wrong way
Your process for hiring a new agency may start your client/agency relationship off on the wrong foot before you even make the final decision. You’re like the creepy guy at the bar whose behaviour is so sketchy that it clears the room before you even get the chance to ask someone out. People are texting each other to warn their friends to stay away from you.
To make sure you don’t become the social pariah of the agency world, follow these few do’s and don'ts when choosing an agency to work with:
Don’t put out a public RFP and invite any and every agency to submit.
Most good agencies, the agencies you want to work with, won’t respond to random RFP’s. They know that the RFP process is usually being evaluated on price alone. They’re not going to waste all the time and effort that goes into responding to an RFP (and trust me, it’s A LOT of time and effort) when you’re only interested in a bargain basement price, and not the value that they can deliver your company.
Trust me on this: if the deal happens and you are the client paying the bargain basement price, you’re going to get bargain basement service and work.
Do research a handful of agencies, ask around for referrals, and then separately invite them to a private meeting or phone call to discuss your needs.
Good agencies, the kind you want to work with, know that a successful business relationship is based on a good fit right from the start. They want to make sure that they can provide the right solution to your challenge, deliver results, and provide good ROI. They also want to know that you’ll all get along in the process.
You should have the same criteria when choosing an agency, but you can’t determine any of those things by blindly emailing out a convoluted RFP document. You need to meet in person, or at the very least, have a phone call.
Depending on the size of the potential agency and the appeal of your brand, you might deal with a lower level associate to start with so just to tell them what services you’re looking for. Disclose your approximate monthly marketing spend or project budget, and let them know that you’re shopping around with a few other agencies.
Good agencies want good work, so they’ll get in touch for next steps and to set up a meeting with the right people.
Don’t hire the cheapest agency.
Yes, hire the agency you can afford, but don’t attempt a bidding war or try to get the best deal in town. Again, you’ll only end up filtering out the best agencies who don’t want to deal with that cheap-ass bullshit.
Don’t ask them to submit speculative work. EVER.
If you haven’t hired an agency, don’t ask them for mockups for campaigns, strategy documents, or early design comps. That’s what they get PAID to do. You wouldn’t ask ten carpenters to build you a deck before deciding which one you’re going to hire.
Good agencies won’t put tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars of work into trying to win you over and appeal to your tastes, only to be turned down. It’s also not how good work is made.
If you want a sense of the quality of their work, ask for a portfolio, case studies, and references from other clients.
Do ask for a formal pitch and proposal process.
While RFP’s and speculative work are no-nos, it’s totally appropriate to ask for a proposal and pitch meeting. If the potential agency wants your business, they will happily prepare a proposal, and they’ll want to pitch it to you in person or via web conference.
Don’t just ask for the costs to be emailed to you; it doesn’t work like that. They want to wow you, so let them do that. It’s good for you to get a feel for the people you’ll be working with and be able to ask questions.
Do invite other team members to the pitch
Make sure that you invite key people on your team to the pitch; people who will either end up working with the agency once the project kicks off, or who will be affected by the results.
That way they can ask questions about the agency’s process and expertise, plus they’ll get a feel for what the working relationship might be like. Your co-workers may also be able to provide valuable information to the agency that will help with the project.
After the pitch, thank the agency and tell them when to expect a decision. Make sure you follow through with the date, or at least keep them posted on any delays.
If the agency is in high demand, they may tell YOU when they need to hear a yes or no. Don’t be offended by this; they want to be sure that they can schedule the time to do your work amongst the other client projects they have on the go. It may be they can do your project in the next 4-6 weeks, but they’re booked for three months after that.
Discuss the pitch and proposal with your team members to decide if the agency can deliver what you need and that there’s a cultural fit - you want to enjoy working together. Price is important but not the most important thing — just make sure they articulate your return on investment in a way that makes sense.
Ghosting your agency when they need you
If you expected that once you hired an agency, you could go off on vacation or lose yourself in another project and the work would magically get done without you, you’re sadly mistaken. You’re also going to frustrate the hell out of your agency.
Just like any relationship, both sides need to contribute. They need you, and you need them. You’re in this project together.
To complete the work successfully, your agency may need you to answer questions to shape the direction, give feedback at certain milestones, and provide information for deliverables like copy.
Make yourself available for meetings and phone calls. When your agency sends you work to review, approve it or request changes in a timely fashion.
When I ran an agency, 90% of the time projects were delayed because the clients were late providing feedback, approvals, or other resources, like copy or product information. I even wrote an entire post about it.
You don’t want the project delayed now, do you? Neither does your agency. And you certainly don’t want to be the one responsible for delaying the project.
If you’re too busy to talk to your agency every week or two, or get them what they need to complete the project, then appoint someone in your company to be the main point of contact and give them the autonomy to make decisions.
A word of warning: if you do choose a co-worker to take the lead as the agency point of contact, don’t come in at the end of the project and change everything. Make sure you’re staying up to date on the progress of the project. Otherwise, you’ll quickly end up on the Top Ten Clients to Hate list. You’ll also incur more expenses for changing the scope or delaying the project.
You’re either in, or you’re out.
Having unrealistic expectations
Clients are so renowned for having unrealistic expectations when working with an agency that there’s an entire department whose main job is to manage those expectations. It’s politely called “account management”.
Sure, account managers are also tasked with bringing in new business and being your point of contact if you have questions or want to discuss strategy, but really, and they won’t tell you this, one of their biggest challenges is managing your crazy, delusions-of-grandeur expectations.
What kinds of expectations are unrealistic, you ask?
You aren’t their only client
Most agencies, the good ones, have multiple client projects on the go at once. They’re not sitting idly by the phone waiting to hear from you. You also haven’t paid them enough to be the ONLY project they’re working on.
Clients often want work turned around in no time at all - expecting months of work to be launched in a week. But agencies have other deadlines to meet, other work to do. They should meet the deadlines they’ve committed to you, but you can’t expect them to drop everything to work on your project alone. Also, there’s a reality to how long it takes to complete certain deliverables, and if you want quality results, that takes time.
The sad thing is, a lot of agencies bend to unreasonable client demands, and force their team to work late nights and weekends to make the client happy and meet their unrealistic expectations.
The people working on your account aren’t robots, they’re people. They need sleep and a healthy work/life balance, as we all do. Everybody in the agency business knows at least a couple of people who got divorced and lost their families because they lived at the office. You don’t want to be part of that problem. And you don’t want to be on the receiving end of work that’s done by a sleep-deprived, stressed out, unhappy creative director.
Don’t make your agency a scapegoat
Clients are notorious for blaming their agency when bad things happen, things beyond the agency’s control.
Your website got hacked? Sales are down after a market crash? Software the agency recommended had a bug or experienced some downtime? It’s not their fault. That’s like if an asteroid landed at your corporate event and you blamed the person who booked the venue.
Shit happens, and sometimes that shit is outside of your agency’s control. Stay calm, ask them to do whatever is in their power to fix it, but don’t blame them.
Thinking you can do their work for them
Having an agency is like having a dance partner. If you want to get the best work from them, you need to let them lead. Don’t step on their toes.
Remember why you hired them - you needed help. You need outside expertise and resources. If you know better, why did you hire an agency to start with?
That doesn’t mean you don’t have valuable ideas or opinions to contribute to the project, but you need to respect their expertise enough to let them do what they’re good at. Let them do their job. You wouldn’t tell a trial lawyer how to defend you in a murder case. So don’t tell a designer how to design a website, or there will be a murder.
I’ve talked to companies who were about to hire an agency to design their product, and they thought they were supposed to already have all the answers with everything sketched out exactly as they want.
Guess what? The designer at the agency is going to take your sketches, laugh at them, crumple them up, set them on fire, light a cigarette with them, and then butt that cigarette out in the rubble.
Design is not just an end result. It’s a process that involves discussing problems, coming up with ideas for solutions, talking to end users and testing prototypes. That’s how they get to the beautiful result, your project.
There’s nothing creative people hate more than being handed a paint-by-numbers worksheet. They want to find the solution, not have it handed to them. And frankly, that’s what you’re paying them for!
Accept that you aren’t going to have all the answers at the beginning, and that’s OK. Don’t come to your agency with solutions — come with challenges. Your agency won’t think you’re dumb. That’s what they’re here for. That’s their business.
The only other time you get to sit around and complain about your problems is with a therapist, so just enjoy this.
Having crappy taste and offering subjective feedback
Part of hiring a marketing agency usually involves a creative deliverable, and guess what? You’re not always going to like what you see.
That doesn't mean they suck. It doesn’t mean you hired the wrong agency and need to find a new one. It means you don’t like it.
Great design doesn’t happen in one shot - it usually takes feedback, testing, and iteration to really knock it out of the park. So don’t flip out if you don’t like the first version.
Here’s a mental process you should follow to review and critique creative. Ask yourself:
Does this align with the strategy you’ve already approved?
If the strategy was to highlight a particular feature of your product or facet of your brand and the creative does just that, then it’s on strategy. Remember that creative brief you signed off on?
So if the work is true to creative brief you approved, but you now realize you screwed up and approved the wrong strategy, then say so. Your agency will have to redo the work, which means it’s going to cost more and take longer. But that’s your fault not having your shit together, not theirs.
Is your personal taste interfering with good work?
The fact you don’t like the colour purple because you hated Marie on Breaking Bad doesn’t make the creative off strategy; it just means you don’t like purple. This isn’t a painting going on the wall in your living room; it’s a creative solution designed to get you business results. It’s targeted at your customers, not you.
Feel free to ask the designer why they made certain choices, but listen to their rationale as objectively as possible. If you don’t agree with their decisions on an objective level, tell them.
I once worked with a client who manufactured a medical product. I used the colour red. The CEO at the company was Chinese, and I didn’t know at the time that certain colours have massive significance in Chinese culture.
Red in certain contexts is considered offensive. The product was being sold in China, so the colour choice really mattered. In this case, the client knew best. But it wasn’t based on the CEO’s personal preference, it was based on what the market would accept. That’s good fucking feedback right there.
Does the work make you slightly uncomfortable?
If so, then it’s probably going in exactly the right direction. Do you know why the majority of ads suck and aren’t memorable? Because the agency gave the client what made them feel comfortable. Safe. Passive. Forgettable.
The market doesn’t care how you feel.
Work that stands out is raw, funny, authentic, transparent, and sometimes pushes the envelope. It takes a stand for something. It says something not everyone agrees with. It alienates some people.
So if you feel a tightness in your chest about the work, that’s you feeling something. And if YOU feel something, your target audience just might feel something too. When you can elicit a positive emotional response from your target audience, then it’s time to hand your agency a bottle of champagne because they did their fucking job.
I’m not saying this doesn’t backfire sometimes. When you make yourself stand out, you can offend certain people and this can cause a public relations issue. Use good judgement, but don’t let yourself become such a slave to pleasing everyone that in the end, you please no one, not even your own bottom line.
Being an unforgiving asshole
All of this makes me sound like I think agencies are infallible; they aren’t. Agencies are made up of humans and humans screw up.
They miss deadlines. They make bad calls. Their work doesn’t evoke the right reaction with your target audience. It happens to the best of agencies.
If there is an occasion when your agency fucks up, call them out on it privately, either over the phone or in person. But remember that they’re people with feelings who likely had very good intentions. No one WANTS to be a fuck up. So treat them the way you’d treat a valued employee during these times, not like a faceless supplier.
If your agency isn’t living up to your expectations, look inward and make sure your expectations are realistic. If they are, then talk to your account manager and light a fire under them.
Before you go above your account person’s head to complain to the owners or decide to fire the agency altogether, give them time to correct the situation.
Agencies want to do good work, and you should expect good work. But you should also expect that shit happens sometimes. It’s not necessarily the end of the world, or the end of your project.
Not paying invoices on time
There’s almost nothing worse than a client who doesn’t pay their invoices on time.
Here’s what to do when your agency send you an invoice:
Read it over to see what it’s for. If the number isn’t what you expected or you feel you were overcharged, call your account manager and get it straightened out right away. Don’t silently file it away until you’re nagged about it.
If the number is what you expected, give it to your account payables department and ask them to pay it. If the invoice says net 15, that doesn’t mean look at the invoice in 15 days; it means have it paid. It means that you should issue the cheque this week or next week to account for the mail delivery time.
Agencies run businesses with narrow margins, long sales cycles, and a lot of clients who wait until as long as possible to pay. Yes, that’s the nature of the business, but contributing to the problem won’t help you either. In lots of agencies, clients who are consistently slow to pay their invoices are dropped way down the priority line when it comes to completing work.
Just pay your fucking bills on time.
I’m really not trying to paint all clients with the same asshole paint brush. But if you ask 1,000 agencies about their biggest frustrations with clients, I guarantee all of of these points will come up 99% of the time.
I don’t think you were born an asshole client. You just have no idea what you’re doing. And by not knowing what you’re doing, you’re ruining your chances of getting mind-blowingly awesome work that will deliver mind-blowingly awesome results.
That’s why I wrote this post. Think of me as the United Nations of the client/agency relationship.
Now, shed your shittiness and be a client that agencies, and your bottom line, will love.