How to Avoid The Biggest Client / Agency Relationship Killers

Unless it’s a corporate governance requirement, global realignment or competitive conflict, calling an agency review isn’t something most clients undertake lightly. So what are the biggest client / agency relationship killers and why do marketers really call reviews?

In our experience, agency reviews are generally called for only a comparatively small number of reasons and, for the most part, many reviews could potentially be avoided if the underlying reasons were properly diagnosed and addressed in the early stages of their first symptoms. While that may sound a bit like a surgeon’s health warning, the analogy isn’t far off.

Aside from corporate governance, realignment or conflict, here are our observations on the top ten client / relationship killers – and how to avoid them:

Revolving door

In cases where the agency has a ‘revolving door’ of staff on the account, both the client and the agency should work together to understand why because it doesn’t necessarily follow that it’s the agency to blame. Marketers should ask the agency why resources are constantly changing and be prepared to address feedback that may point to their own organization contributing to the high rate of staff turnover.


Ah yes… although cost comes up frequently as a cause for agency dissatisfaction, marketers should actively seek an accurate and independent assessment of what their scope of work should cost in the current market before contemplating an agency change. Cost may be a sore point, but it’s rarely the sole culprit in agency dissatisfaction.

Lack of creativity (or so they think)

If your agency isn’t delivering the creative you want, the key is to understand the real reasons why. While some agencies have stronger creative resources and all marketer creative challenges aren’t created equal, it’s important to understand what role your own organization plays in this perceived lack of creativity. Underlying causes may be in the briefing provided, the lack of insights identified in the planning process or perhaps in the evaluation of concepts when they’re presented.


Performance is another area where marketers need to understand the real reasons their agency isn’t performing. Identifying underlying client-side business challenges, misalignment of objectives or perhaps media issues unrelated to strategic or creative output could then avert the need for an unnecessary agency search. Determining the true reason behind the performance issue and resolving it can create a far more powerful agency relationship than an agency review ever could.


When a marketer has a material change of scope, the question is then whether the incumbent is capable of managing to those revised requirements. If the scope is so radically different from before, the marketer must also ask how their internal teams are going to manage that change and perhaps whether an additional specialist agency would be more helpful than a switching out the incumbent.

Seniority – or lack thereof

The root cause of a lack of senior resources on a piece of business is typically that the agency isn’t being remunerated sufficiently to be able to afford to staff with greater seniority. In these cases, marketers should review their scopes of work with their incumbents to define an agreed staffing plan against an agreed (perhaps revised) budget or remuneration plan.


If you’re a marketer looking for a ‘change’, ask yourselves specifically what it is in the relationship that you’d like changed. In most cases, agencies are going to be receptive to requests for change and accommodate them if their clients can be specific about what needs to be addressed – and why. An ongoing, honest dialogue will help create a stronger, long-term relationship and put the ‘grass is greener’ idea into perspective.

Weak Execution

While poor execution can be frustrating, there are many factors at play that should be isolated: Speed, cost, accuracy, quality assurance, lack of process (by agency or marketer or both), or too many confusing change requests can all cause a perception of ‘poor execution’. By being specific about what’s not working, your agency can then be challenged to address the specific concern within a defined time period.


Politics in any situation can be tough, but if they’re not addressed within an incumbent agency environment, the chances are they’ll spill over into the next agency relationship and resurface. If you can’t address the politics of a situation at an executive level, it may be that you have an underlying organizational design issue that needs to be addressed before you can begin to focus on searching for a new agency.

Lack of Trust

This is the toughest issue to resolve because it goes to the very foundation of the client / agency relationship. Resolving a lack of trust between a client and an agency can generally only be resolved if it’s addressed as soon as the issue surfaces. The longer the issue is left unresolved, the more likely it is the relationship will be unsalvageable. Irrespective of which side the lack of trust originates, the marketer or the agency must confront the issue with their counterpart and resolve it or resign themselves to the fact they have a terminally ill relationship and an agency review will – sooner or later – be inevitable.

These aren’t the only factors that kill agency relationships and cause clients to call agency reviews, but they are all irritants that can sour otherwise healthy relationships. And more often than not, it’s rarely one single issue in isolation that causes a marketer to pull the trigger on an agency review process, which is why regular agency evaluations are helpful as early warning signs of potential trouble.

So if you’re contemplating an agency review but haven’t identified the root cause – take time to do some introspection on your own organization and how your teams might be able to work differently to resolve some of the pain points. And if you’re stuck, our agency health-check system can help pinpoint specific issues on both sides within a couple of weeks.

How’s your agency relationship faring? And are they really deal-breakers?


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: SimonQ錫濛譙
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