“Doing business with us is like giving birth without an epidural…”

The headline that inspired this article ‘doing business with us is like giving birth without an epidural…‘ is a real quote from a client (not their agency).

It was an incumbent agency evaluation process designed to help solve a seemingly ‘troubled agency relationship’ (their words, not ours). During our discussions, one client said it:  ‘doing business with us is like giving birth without an epidural…’  Happily, the process continued and we were able to identify more than a dozen process improvements to deal with what turned out to be a predominantly client-side issue.

Every marketer should accept their unwritten responsibility to help manage their agency relationships – not just for the sake of the agencies, but for the well-being of their businesses.  A little forethought and proper preparation can go a long way – for example:

  • Making time for your agency – both for regular calls and in-person meetings
  • Care and respect – we all like others to say ‘thank you’ – so does your agency
  • Clear definition of roles and responsibilities – particularly between agencies
  • Proper briefings – not just a ‘tick the boxes’ form with an appendix full of research
  • Clear definition of success metrics – that’s understood and agreed by the agency
  • Proper remuneration – fair value for work provided (paid promptly!)
  • Timely feedback – that’s provided less formally, but regularly, throughout the year
  • Annual reviews – including a mechanism for 360 feedback

The problem is, many marketers don’t actively manage their agency relationships to maximize their potential.  Sure, there may be those reading this thinking ‘we do annual reviews with our agencies, so what’s the problem…’ but relationship management needs more than a formal annual check-in.

Identifying the issue

Perhaps the most critical step in being able to fix any agency issue is being able to correctly identify it.  Yes, really.  Issues can often be misdiagnosed, leaving both agencies and their clients bewildered when things take a nosedive after weeks or months of trying to fix a perceived issue.

Pricing or costs are frequently misdiagnosed issues with marketers complaining costs are too high.  Agencies attempt to correct the misperception by reducing staff seniority and the results are generally less than auspicious.  

And then there’s the other half or parts of the issue:  Typically it’s not one issue that derails an agency relationship from succeeding but two.  One issue comes to a head then the client or agency (or both) point to another issue that’s been stone in the shoe of the relationship for months (even years), and the perception is the relationship is beyond hope, when invariably it’s completely fixable.

And speaking of fixes, here are the top five that issues that are almost always fixable:


The client says ‘hey, we’re paying too much money…’ or the agency says ‘we’re not making enough…’  Or both.  Benchmarking, scope review and staffing plans typically reveal the true story and whether money is the root of the problem or just a symptom. 


Is doing business with your organization ‘like giving birth without an epidural…?’ Of course not!  Well, are you sure?  Stakeholder interviews have revealed a myriad of process challenges caused by client-side procedures or shortcomings, in addition to improvements at the agency.


People issues are frequent stones in the shoe of a relationship, but one weak link doesn’t mean the agency relationship can’t work long-term.  Uncovering resource shortfalls or roadblocks can often help transform a working relationship to where it should be.


Just not creative or strategic enough?  Then time for a review, right?  Not so fast.  In most cases, the agency was hired because their strategic and / or creative chops were head and shoulders above other agencies you looked at.  So what happened?  Staff changes?  What about your briefing process or evaluation processes?


With media as something of a hot-button at the moment, it’s tempting to escalate media issues faster than others.  But a review of the media plan – rather than the media agency – may be the simple fix needed to help pinpoint specific issues and then address them.

If you’re struggling with any of these and contemplating an agency review without first figuring out how best to course correct, you run the risk of duplicating the issue with your next agency.  So what’s the best way for your organization to build a stronger client / agency relationship?


Stephan Argent is Founder and Principal at Listenmore Inc  offering confidential advisory to marketers looking for truly independent insight and advice they can’t find anywhere else. Read more like this on our blog Marketing Unscrewed / follow me @StephanArgent

Photo: Lien C. Lau

Please share / like / follow: