Why client+agency engagements are so often failures, but it’s a secret

Whilst I’ve never worked agency-side, I have a perspective from client-side on why client+creative agency engagements are so often not as productive as they should be. I’ve worked with many creative agencies – as well as other suppliers, and there are some common themes that I’ve identified. There are issues on both sides.

In this post, I’m generalising. I’m sure there are some great supplier managers, and some great agencies, that really make things work. I have seen moments of sanity impinge on this process, but not as often as one would expect.

Senior managers drive it

Taking on an agency is usually driven by senior management. That’s not a surprise in itself. They are the ones carrying the can for effective results, and they have the budgets to pay for the work. The problem is that they often don’t involve the workers, don’t always understand the actual problem they are trying to solve, don’t know how to set the right goals… erm, etc.

Whilst the worker bees are, to mix metaphors, beavering away, they find that all of a sudden  there’s this agency that’s been taken on to do something or other, and the worker bees may or may not be expected to engage in the exercise. It’s not always clear.

Often, whatever the deliverable is, it’s the worker bees who are expected to manage, operate, and update it once the engagement is over. But there’s been little engagement or input from the client bees, so they feel no emotional involvement with the solution, and may even think that it’s the wrong answer.

This isn’t just an issue that applies to agency engagement – too often senior management will think that they know enough to drive a solution without talking to the people on the ground.

At the end of the engagement, it’s clearly not in the interests of the commissioning manager to say ‘Well that didn’t work’. If they do, then they typically have to blame the agency. Unless you have someone who is remarkably non-defensive and open to learning, they aren’t going to admit that the terms of engagement and processes weren’t right from the start. The result is that the same mistakes are made next time.


  • Owning managers should consult their own staff to shape an engagement
  • Client staff should be involved throughout the engagement at all levels

Agencies load up the client team

Particularly with larger agencies, there are going to be a cast of players whose roles are never really quite clear, but who charge high fees for each hour worked. There’s a relationship manager, a relationship director, a project manager, a creative lead, an interaction designer, etc etc, and when there’s a meeting some turn up, and some don’t, and the client doesn’t get a lot of say in it. I have serious trouble believing that all these roles are either needed, and need to be engaged at the level they are. It’s certainly not Lean, and it costs a lot of money.


  • Agencies need to be transparent about roles
  • Agencies need to clearly justify roles and billable hours
  • Everyone client side should understand who’s in the meeting, and why, not just the owning manager

Objectives aren’t clear, and most aren’t measured

I think it would be fair to pay an agency on results (or at least, have an element of it). It’s likely some do that. But it’s hard if the client organisation isn’t clear itself about hard business objectives that need to be met, and the role the agency can play. Obviously there’s a difficulty for an agency if the client refuses to implement their recommendations, which is why the mixed compensation model may be best. It’ll depend on the brief.

Some time ago I was strongly dissatisfied with what a marketing agency were doing for us. I talked to one of our internal marketeers (who agreed with me), and who arranged a meeting at the agency offices for the entire team working on our account – about 12 people I think. We had a discussion. At one point I asked how they knew if what they were doing for us helped us meet commercial goals. There was a slight pause of astonishment that such a question should be asked, and then it was carefully explained to me that the people in the room were all experts in their roles, and there was a large amount of cumulative experience brought to bear on the work. That was it. No reference at all to measurement, testing, metrics, anything. And it seems that both sides were ok with that.

A particular issue that I’ve come across is that I’ve often seen agencies obsessing over details of visual design, whilst completely missing the point that the interaction design was poor. Without a clear focus on commercial goals, and the right balance of skills on the project, there’s a risk of ending up with a visually delightful, commercially useless solution.

As a business, you need to be able to define quality standards for the work that an agency does, be able to police those standards, and have a process that kicks in if they are not met. Take note, anyone who plans IT outsourcing.


  • The client needs to be clear about the business goals for the engagement
  • Business goals should be written into the contract and impact remuneration
  • How to measure the business goals may need to be planned, and measure put in place, they may not already exist
  • Everyone on the project (client and agency) should know what the goals are

Working processes are unclear

So often that it hurts, a contract between client and agency would be agreed, and then the discussion would start on how it was going to be achieved. Typically, agencies wanted a brief, and then wanted to go away for a time, and come back with the answer, and be paid. What we wanted was to collaborate. Have some of their people on site, work over there sometimes, have regular catch-ups to see how it was going. Entirely different assumptions were made about how it was going to be done, and neither the commissioning manager nor the contract team had any idea that this was an issue for the contract.


  • Agree what the workflow will be between client and agency, and include it in the contract or as an appendix
  • Involve the people who will be doing the work in shaping the agreement

Agencies don’t think they need help from the client

This one frustrates me hugely. Almost without fail, the agency pitch in response to a client brief would mostly include platitudes about the business, their customers and processes that were already well known. That’s ok to the extent that it shows that the agency understand something, but it doesn’t help when it’s presented as the big reveal. Then, much of the rest of the pitch is stuff that’s already been thought of but simply won’t work for very good reasons, or is actually a bad idea. After that, there may be a nugget or two to latch on to, which the agency is told to go away and develop. It’s a massive waste of everyone’s time.

Many times I and colleagues have spoken to agencies as they worked on a presentation for the big bosses, offering our help. Talk to us, we said. Share what you’re thinking, and we can help you to take out the road bumps. We’ll tell you if we spot issues with your proposals, if there are political issues you may need to be aware of etc. We made it clear, truthfully, that we weren’t going to steal their thunder, and also that they didn’t have to take out advice. If I had been agency-side I’d have jumped at the offer. Sadly, I can’t think of a single agency that did, with predictable results.


  • Clients should offer expert help in shaping agency proposals
  • Agencies should ask for it
  • Work collaboratively, leveraging the expertise of each organisation