Client or Agency: Who's to Blame?

Through my work with SMEs I’ve been hearing more and more stories of disappointment and frustration with agencies that don’t seem to want to understand their clients’ needs and are not giving the client what they expect. Who should be to blame for that?

As a freelancer myself, this could easily be a one sided argument but rest assured I’ve also spent a good part of my career on the client side so I’m far from biased either way. The relationship between a client and any kind of agency (creative, digital, PR, strategic or otherwise), can be filled with minefields that get in the way of a fantastic result.

The agency is the obvious culprit because they are the ones who are getting paid out of this deal, right? Aside from going to the extreme of becoming a client’s customer to understand them inside out (and running the risk of knowing too much), there can be barriers to an agency getting the information they need in order to get a complete picture. Least of which is the client’s willingness or ability to share relevant and insightful information; and knowing what it is they need in the first place.

There are two clear things that will prevent the delivery of a worthwhile and successful project: 1. Your agency hasn’t asked the right questions; and 2. You haven’t asked your agency to solve a specific problem.

In other words, you will both try to find a solution (a new website, a new social media account, a brand redesign) without having properly understood the real and underlying problem that needs to be solved. This leads to confusion around expectations, deliverables and results.

Of course there’s a myriad of reasons why agencies and clients don’t get their facts straight from the beginning: there are time pressures and deadlines; there are often too many other people putting their oar in because your project is more fun than whatever they’re meant to be working on; and for bigger companies at least, there is often way too much reliance on consumer research and testing which can muddy the waters of any good idea. You are probably waiting for “lack of budget” as the final clincher but that actually doesn’t come into play here. As I’ve proven with some of my smallest clients, an hour or two can be enough time to uncover the real problem.

For all these reasons, an agency should be the one to take responsibility for establishing the problem from the start since it’s often the agency’s fresh perspective that will help a client find such clarity. But none of this can be done with an uncooperative client.

Agencies need to dig deeper.

A client and an agency walk into a bar. The client says, “my sales are too low!” and the agency says, “Start tweeting!”.

So, clearly I’m not a comedian, but let’s just say there is a natural inclination for some agencies to address all clients with the same blanket solution. Usually because that’s what the agency is good at or it’s what they can do quickly and cost effectively. For larger agencies, it can be the temptation to retro fit the latest cool technology or trend to the client because it’s a good chance to get a new case study and have a bit of fun. Jumping straight to a tactic could also be due to a client’s unrealistic expectations and single mindedness; “I must be on Twitter to be competitive”.

When you are being briefed, face that meeting with a completely open mind, and listen. Ask a lot of questions. Dig deeper. More often than not, the issue that led the client to you in the first place (I need to be on Twitter), isn’t actually the real, more serious issue (I‘m having trouble finding new customers). Trying to retrofit your offer will not only prove costly for your client but is unlikely to lead to a long term relationship.

By understanding the client better, an agency can form an over-riding plan to achieve their specific goal, ie a strategy.

The key takeaway: if you don’t believe that the tactic the client wants will actually deliver the result they’re expecting, then you need to find a way to convince them of the more appropriate alternative. Or die trying. There is nothing good that can come out of a project that your agency doesn’t actually believe will work.

Clients need to be pragmatic

Your agency is only as good as the brief you give them.

On a broad scale I don’t think that any agency would do a bad job if they were given a clear instruction, boundaries and budget from the very beginning. You might not get a beautiful logo from someone who works for $1 an hour but they’ll at least draw you the horse eating a cake that you asked for.

If an agency is provided with a few pieces of information and a broad question; this does not make a brief. If you make time for a half hour phone call for your poor account director, they may be able to cobble together what you want but it will not be what you need.

As a freelancer, I like my briefs in writing, with clear, relevant information filled out under headings. As a client, this was one of my least favourite jobs to do (“Who has the time?” “No one will read it anyway!”) But now I understand that as an agency, you do read it. You read it by the letter. You make sure that everything your client wants, you can deliver (and if not, you tell them so) and that your fees will cover the work required, fair and square.

Take the obvious example of a cake. You’re hoping for a red velvet, triple blueberry twirl, with a hint of cinnamon, but you say “Just be creative, send me some ideas!” You must be honest from the beginning if you have a clear vision in your head. This is because it gives the agency a chance to meet that expectation but also to challenge it with bigger and better ideas.

On the flip side, you might do all but cook the cake and then blame the agency when it comes out burnt. Meaning the brief is so prescriptive and your feedback so rigid (perhaps with some of that dreaded consumer research thrown in) that the agency doesn’t get any opportunity to be creative or add insight with it’s fresh perspective. This will give you a diluted result that will be far from creative or innovative.

One of the best tricks I learned as a client of global creative agency, Draft FCB, was that the agency will write the brief for you. They will do this for you, no matter how big or small they are if they are worth their salt because it will ensure the best outcome for both of you. They’ll fill in their template with what they heard you want (a great way to make sure they were listening in the first place) and you then have something you can edit and refine to your needs. So much easier than starting one from scratch.

As part of the briefing process, try to be honest about the reality of your business’s situation. Whether it’s personally affronting (customers say they’re happy but then they never come back and I don’t know why) or you’re afraid of the answer (why won’t people buy my product?), an agency is there to help you find the solution to that problem. They are certainly not there to judge you and it is within their interests to deliver an awesome result for you.

One of the things I have heard many many times over the years is “we tried that, it didn’t work.” Try not to say this and instead challenge the idea with questions. The last thing you want to do is shut down a brilliant option that will be delivered in a vastly different way to how you did it 10 years ago.

And always be asking your agency “Why?” When an agency recommends adding an e-newsletter sign-up form to your website, ask why. What is the payoff versus the work and investment that needs to go into that project? If the results aren’t coming through as expected, ask the agency to tell you why. This is not only about accountability but a good agency will be equally as concerned as you when the results aren’t good, and they will want to work with you to figure out the reasons and how to fix it.

Summing up

In the end, a client can never blame an agency for the situation they find themselves in, just as an agency can’t blame a client for poor decision making or execution. Both need to be crystal clear on what they’re trying to achieve and why they’re doing it in the first place. All it takes is honest communication and a little extra time well spent at the very beginning.