The 10 reasons client-agency relationships end in divorce

Relationships between clients and advertising agencies are a lot like marriages.  They often start full of love and goodwill but as the years roll on they become fraught, difficult and often end in divorce.

I’ve watched many client-agency relationships fall apart over the years and I’ve been involved in a few client-agency divorce settlements.  It is painful for both parties and, in my experience rarely ends well.

Of course, you can push the marriage metaphor too far.  Clients engage agencies often based on a competitive pitch process at times akin to speed dating.  Those engagement processes are often flawed – relying too heavily on factors like cost.  (I understand money is important but agency appointments based solely on remuneration levels are risky in my opinion).

So what are most common factors that lead to client-agency divorce?  Here’s my Top Ten. Please ignore the order – and be aware the marriage breakdown is rarely the result of one single factor:

1.     Mismatched expectations of outcomes.  The client tells the pitching agency that they’re committed to a long-term process to build their brand.  The first brand campaign goes well, the marketing manager feels good – everyone loves the creative approach.  But then there is pressure on sales and the client is pushing for harder edged campaigns to drive inquiries or hits to the website.  Often this issue begins inside the company engaging the agency.  The marketing manager discovers that while his or her boss kind of liked the idea of building a brand, they never really understood the timescale and when the pressure built for sales, sales, sales – the love affair with brand building quickly evaporated. 

2.     Account directors who are out of their depth.  The role of the account director in managing the relationship between a client and the agency is absolutely crucial.  Great account directors are far more than just smoozers in a suit – most of them don’t wear suits these days anyway. In my view the most critical role of the account director is to intimately understand the client’s business, to feel the pressures the client feels, to sense when things are getting tough and to be able to walk in the shoes of the client.  

3.     Personality differences.  Porsche-driving, aggressive, loud agencies don’t necessarily suit quietly spoken, socially conservative clients who drive a land-drover and hate going to the footy.  This is all about relationship folks, which are often a reflection of a shared worldview and similar values.  By nature human beings tend to form longer-term bonds with people with whom they relate well.  This is one reason why I am not a huge believer in the standard pitch process representing the only way to appoint an agency.

4.     Agencies taking on too much.  A new agency starts up and becomes the darling of the marketing world.  Everyone wants to hire them.  Their client list grows rapidly and pretty soon you can see the account directors have become nothing more than glorified scheduling clerks: Making promises they can’t keep, deftly side-stepping the fact that the campaign concept they promised a week ago hasn’t even hit the desk of the creative team. 

5.     A change of personnel.  This happens a lot.  The advertising agency has built a great relationship with an individual marketing manager but when that individual leaves, or is removed, the relationship with the company is exposed as limited at best.   In particular, the agency has no relationship whatsoever with the people who really matter inside the company – especially the CEO and, just as important, the CFO.  A new marketing manager is appointed and immediately moves to make changes.  The critical insight here is that client-agency relationships need to be deeper than just the account director and the marketing manager.  The same applies on the agency side. Any agency is only as good as the talent it employs. 

6.     The marketing team loses favour or fails to engage the rest of the business.  I think this happens a lot.  In my observation, marketing teams often struggle to win the respect of the rest of the business.  They are, too often, seen by the rest of the management team as a cost centre rather than a profit centre.  Often that is because they are.  In some cases the marketing manager or head of function is simply out of their depth.  They simply don’t have the intellectual horsepower or experience to do the job.

7.     Agency cost and time over-runs.  Marketing teams are often under immense pressure to maintain budget discipline.  Agencies who ignore their pleas to keep a tight watch on costs do so at their peril.  If the client says the budget is 50K, then repeatedly responding with campaigns that cost 10-15% more will grind down trust and eventually kill the relationship.  Likewise timelines.  Agencies who continuously fail to deliver in the time frames promised are the equivalent of the unfaithful partner who is always late home from work.  It kills trust.  Agencies: Don’t promise what you cannot deliver.  Period.

8.     Poor briefing processes or even no brief at all.  There is a reason we write briefs to inform a creative process.  Committing things to paper helps the client to clarify what they want.  I am a big fan of the reverse brief – as long as it is not used by agencies to manipulate the client into what the agency wants to do – as opposed to the client’s actual intention.  The extra week spent refining the brief and making sure there is absolute clarity is time well spent.

9.     Lack of clarity about key performance indicators within the company hiring the agency.  I see this again and again.  Multiple KPIs that are in conflict with each other.  Expecting an agency to create a campaign that will drive the volume of sales, highlight product quality and retain the loyalty of existing customers is an example.  Think about it.  A single campaign is going to do all that?  Often this comes down to the marketing department pushing back on the sales teams and management line and agreeing on a single, achievable KPI.

10.  Expecting advertising to solve every business problem.  In a former life I remember an agency head pulling me aside and making the observation: “Your senior management colleagues have an amazing belief in advertising don’t they?”  What they were really saying was: “Don’t they get that no amount of advertising is going to make up for the fact that the product is 20% more expensive and of inferior quality to the opposition?”  Too often clients expect agency-created campaigns to make up for defective product and service offerings.  You can wrap up a pig and advertise it as prime beef…but it is still pork.  This leads companies to unfairly conclude that the reason they are not making more sales is because the advertising is defective.  They hire another agency.  Another set of campaigns.  More pork.  Same result.  Funny that…