5 Signs Your Agency Relationship Sucks

Agencies, with their teams of skilled experts, are often invaluable partners that can expand a brand’s capabilities and enable business or organizational growth. But brand-agency partnerships are far from having a stellar success rate. Put bluntly, some agency relationships suck, and brands may find themselves questioning if the results are worth the headaches and investments.

Whether you’re working with an advertising agency for a single project or seeking support from a brand strategy agency, knowing what to avoid in these partnerships can save you time, effort, and money.

Switching agencies is no small matter, but if any of the following issues ring true, then it may be time to consider a fresh start.

agency relationship

1) There’s a lack of transparency

Trust is paramount in any kind of partnership but, unfortunately, it’s not always a given when it comes to client-agency relationships.

A lack of trust in your agency can stem from a range of different behaviors. Setting aside outright lying or misdirection, there are more subtle actions that can break down an agency relationship.

For example, maybe you’re constantly kept out of the loop about the agency’s work, with your contact failing to send regular updates and reports. Or, perhaps, the updates come with no explanations or insights. Your agency evades questions and rarely shares details about the work, insisting that you just “trust” them to do the job. While this lack of transparency may seem minor at first, such behavior can quickly cause problems and erode trust.

If the focus of the agency relationship is exclusively on performance and not on learning, that’s a red flag.

Another red sign is if the agency refuses to take accountability for its errors or broken promises. This includes hiding issues that come up, throwing around blame to others, or always having excuses. Mistakes will happen. What matters is what both the client and the agency learn from these mistakes. This learning cannot happen if mistakes are hidden from view and never discussed. This problem can originate from either side. The client may demand performance and lack any interest in discussing mistakes, or the agency may hide mistakes in an effort to “look good.”

The red flag here is if the focus of the relationship is exclusively on performance and not on learning. The key is to realize that what can be learned from a mistake is far more valuable than trying to figure out who is to blame. Failure rarely has one cause and long-term performance demands a clear-eyed review of what went wrong.

Exposure of vulnerabilities and a learning-focused attitude is a strong foundation of trust. If you don’t trust your agency, ask yourself why. Address your concerns with the agency and see if they can be resolved. If a mutual understanding cannot be reached, it may be time to go.

2) Misaligned goals

To be frank here, agencies do not always share their client’s goals. In working with an agency you should be on the lookout for signs of this. Is the agency acting at all times in your best interest or are they focused instead on their own?

This dynamic can be exposed in how they use your money. Do they treat your money as if it were their money and spend it judiciously and with care or do they treat you more like a cash machine to underwrite their whims and passions? This problem can be exacerbated by a common agency practice to add a fee to third party billing. If the agency is taking 15% of third party billing, their incentive—if they are unscrupulous—is to inflate that bill and in doing so make more money. This can be subtle but potentially insidious. A better practice in our view is to bill time and materials for actual agency time associated with third party billing and align the agency with your overall budget objectives so that they are incentivized to be your financial advocate in their dealings with third parties that they control.

Does your agency treat your money as if it were their money and spend it judiciously and with care?

Another version of this that we have witnessed, especially in the nonprofit sector, is the agency using a nonprofit client to get itself on the awards roster rather than delivering what the client needs in terms of on-the-ground results. In this scenario the client is a tool for the agency’s ambitions and not a partner with whom they share goals.

A good sign that this relationship is as it should be is that the agency from time to time will recommend things that are clearly not in their financial interest. Coming out of a research report they may recommend discontinuing a campaign or reducing the budget to make room for a more effective tactic being managed in house or by another agency. This is proof of their acting in your best interest and that they are partners in truth. If you never see this, maybe it’s time to see what else is out there.

3) Poor communication

An article interviewing members of the Forbes Agency Council aptly relayed a common problem among agency relationships: “the biggest calls of distress … heard from potential clients was poor communication from other agencies they hired.”

The basic homework to ensure good communication is as follows:

  • Who are the key points of contact for each party?
  • What kind of information needs to be communicated and what is unnecessary?
  • What is the preferred channel or style of communication?
  • When or how frequently is communication needed?
  • What does successful communication look like for each party?

That said, it is important to remember that between the lines, communication is not about what one side has said, but rather “successful communication” is what the other party has received, understands, and can react or respond to. Is the communication being absorbed by the receiving party as intended? If not, the communicating party has to look for other ways to make sure the important messages are being delivered.

Successful communication is what the other party has received, understands, and can react or respond to.

Take the preferred channel note as an example: if the agency is in the habit of writing long, detailed call reports, but the client does not read or respond to them, it is the responsibility of the agency to figure out how to bring the client along. Maybe the main client is a visual person and does not read long paragraphs; the agency has to adjust its communication style accordingly.

Determining the points of contact for each party seems very simple on the surface, but in practice, it may not be so simple. Often the ultimate client for the agency’s work may not even be on the immediate team, it may be the executive superior of the day-to-day contact. Is that person getting what they need in terms of communication? How is the agency making sure that the communications are in a form that they can be easily reported up within the client’s organization?

The bottom line is that we know communication is critical and it takes proper focus and care to make it truly effective.

4) The agency relationship is too impersonal

Some things in business are designed to be transactional and impersonal. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it’s not how it should be with your agency. You are not coming to your agency for a transaction that can be completed with little or no input from you.

An agency is meant to be a brand’s partner, with the two parties working together toward shared and agreed-upon goals. For that to occur, work needs to be put into building an actual relationship rooted in understanding and respect.

As a client, it should be clear to you that the agency is putting in the effort to know your brand, your service, and/or your product. From objective facts to the goals and perspectives of the organization, a deep understanding of what’s at stake is crucial for an agency to provide effective services. It’s what allows for long-term agency relationships, which save you the time and money it costs to ramp up a new team.

If your agency doesn’t try to get a deep understanding of your particular brand and its customers, that’s a red flag.

Ikea, for example, worked with one of their agencies for a decade. The company’s marketing communications manager, Kemi Anthony, had this to say about the partnership: “I just don’t think you can underestimate the importance of a level of consistency in the relationships that you have with an agency … I feel really lucky that we have a decade’s worth of learnings about what is working and what is right.”

While it’s going to take time for any external partner to fully understand your brand and its customers, if your agency doesn’t even try or insists that they’ve got it (based on past experience in the category perhaps), that’s a red flag. Instead, find an agency that is eager to learn from you and proactively incorporates its learnings into customized solutions for your brand.

5) Control issues in the agency relationship

In some agency relationships, there may be concerns about control, with the agency demanding either too much control or not enough.

One sign of too much control is if an agency has full ownership of a brand’s accounts, data, and reporting. While it may be tempting to have a third party handle everything, giving up access to crucial parts of your marketing ecosystem is dangerous. If things don’t work out, the agency could easily hold that information hostage, leading to more headaches and potential legal battles down the line.

Agencies that demand too much control or not enough are equally problematic.

At the same time, an agency that has no control in the partnership is equally problematic.

Remember that you’re working with the team because of their expertise and well-established processes. They have their own standards of work and shouldn’t sacrifice their principles just to appease clients. When an agency repeatedly bends to the will of a demanding client at the expense of their own expertise, the result isn’t a “happy” client, but poor work and results.

In the long run, having too much or too little control on either side does neither party any good. Above all else, a client and agency should be equal partners working effectively toward a common goal. If any of these issues ring true for you, this is your sign to build a better partnership with a new agency.

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Photo by James Heaton

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