How To Get The Most Out Of Your Agency (And Client)


"Don't tell people how to do things,

tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results"

General George S. Patton

On January 9th, 2012 AdAge, ran a piece entitled ‘How to Be a Better Agency Client: Prominent Marketers Share How They've Improved Relationships and What They Resolve to Do Even Better in 2012.’

Whilst the array of prominent marketers was indeed impressive, the advice on the whole was a little disappointing. Lots of positive, reassuring sounding noises about relationships. 

Yet curiously, few talked about objectives or briefs. 

And only one chose to address the issue of compensation.

So here’s a perspective from the agency side of the relationship on what agencies need from their clients if they are to succeed in delivering great work that solves business problems or opportunities. And what clients need to provide if they’re to get the most out of their agencies.

Provide context

The first question the Royal Marines ask in their development of strategy is:

“What is the situation on the ground, and how does it affect me?” 

Given that in their profession running into a situation without understanding it properly could get you - and others - killed, that seems like an eminently sensible question. 

Similarly, the more we can understand the context for our efforts, the more likely we are to develop ideas that are genuinely fit for purpose. 

Give us a clear account of the present situation as it pertains to the category, the competition, and your business.  Help us understand what is it, why is it like this, and how it affects us.

Provide a problem

The second question the Royal Marines ask in their development of strategy is:

“What have I been told to do and why?” 

The why part is vital: 

“Understanding intent at both levels enables the Marines to attain goals even when unexpected events overtake plans. It aligns behaviors and actions, without micromanagement.”

I know that agency folk can from time to time appear (at least in client eyes) like a bunch of flakes, but if you want us to apply our creativity to actually solving your business issues, then it helps us to start with these, rather than with communications objectives and tasks. 

Lawrence Green articulated this brilliantly:

“The task of any imaginative agency, any creative company, is to understand and serve it client’s business problems. too often, our business has sliced and diced its tasks in the style of a sub-prime mortgage bundler. a corporate task set by the chief executive, reframed as a comms task by the marketing director, refined by the brand consultancy and reduced by the ad agency to the stuff advertising can do: grow awareness, nurture engagement. Too many links, too indirect and weak a connection between commercial possibilities and creative resolution.”

Communications objectives prejudge the nature of the solution.  As Tim Boadbent has written: 

“Defining the problem to be solved in terms of awareness, image or conversion already contains a channel bias: we might look to solve an awareness issue with advertising, a conversion issue with CRM, an image issue with PR and so on. But the business opportunity is, by definition, channelneutral.”

Good creatives aren’t indulgent self-styled ‘artists’ but have a passion for solving real world problems. Briefs and objectives that demand ‘raising awareness’ or (haven forbid) ‘driving engagement’ do nothing but drive a wedge between creativity and business effects.  

Don’t just give your agency a vision. Great work  is rarely born of just espousing lofty ambitions. As Adrian Holmes former chairman of Lowe once said, “A great solution requires a great problem”.  Every story ever told by humanity is about somebody having to overcome a problem to achieve what they want. Strategy is no different. Strategy is about overcoming obstacles. 

As Richard Rumelt in his brilliant book Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The Difference And Why It Matters puts it:

“If you fail to identify and analyze the obstacles, you don’t have a strategy. Instead you have either a stretch goal, a budget, or a list of things you wish would happen.”

(For better or worse, I’m going to quote Rumelt liberally in this post. On what makes for a good strategy (and indeed a bad one) I haven’t come across anybody who has articulated with better clarity and precision).

What are consumers NOT doing at the moment, that you need them to be doing? What are consumers NOT thinking and feeling at the moment that you need them to be? And what are the barriers to be overcome in achieving this?

Here’s Rumelt again:

“A leader’s most important responsibility is identifying the biggest challenges to forward progress and devising a coherent approach to overcoming them.”

Provide insight

Give your agency real insight (if we must call it that). Avoid the psycho-babble. And don’t give in to fetishizing it and pursuing the one perfectly crafted Haiku-like sentence.  Instead, give your agency multiple insights. Give them shopper, brand, product, category,  communications, technology insights. They will help your agency identify the points of possible leverage. As Rumelt puts it, encapsulating the essence of strategy:

“The core of strategy work is always the same: discovering the critical factors in a situation and designing a way of coordinating and focusing actions to deal with those factors.”

So what are the critical factors? What matters in people’s purchase decisions? What are the category triggers, influences, and sources of information? What are the conscious and unconscious influences? How do people buy? How do people choose? What are people‘s media and technology behaviours? What are the potential points of influence and leverage?

Provide focus

You might be surprised how many allegedly ‘single-minded’ strategies and client briefs agencies see that actually contain a multitude of goals, objectives, tasks.  

Here’s Rumelt:

“Strategy is scarcity’s child and to have a strategy rather than vague aspirations, is to choose one path and eschew others”

So tell your agency what task you believe is most important. Don’t make it waste time on peripheral issues.  

After all, it’s not a strategy if choices and sacrifices haven’t been made.

Provide clarity

Try and avoid all the marketing- and adland buzzwords. Even if they are the vernacular of your own corporation and its culture. They are unlikely to make your agency’s task any easier.  In fact as Rumelt argues, the more fluff and buzz there is, there less strategy there is:

“Fluff is superficial restatement of the obvious combined with a generous sprinkling of buzzwords. Fluff masquerades as expertise, thought, and analysis”

Avoid lazy, vague generalisms. Telling your agency that the task is to “raise awareness” does nothing to help it make choices. Let alone inspire.

In other words, your agency doesn’t need you to write the creative brief. And it certainly doesn’t need all the affectations of a bad creative brief - a strategic document straining painfully to be ‘creative’, spurious and largely patronizing pen portraits of the consumer, bad headlines or executional conceits masquerading as a strategic thought, and so on.

Let your agency write its creative brief. That is their job. What it needs is a thoughtful and rigorous client brief that identifies a) what success looks like and b) what the obstacles are.  That’s one of the most powerful contributions to creativity any client can make.

Think beyond the brief

Paul Feldwick has recently suggested that none of this need be conveyed in the traditional client brief: 

“If the client brief is considered as a pile of information from which the agency is to derive a strategy, it will never be able to anticipate what information the agency might need to do this. Briefs, on the other hand, that anticipate the strategic choices that need to be made, rarely gain the assent of the agency, which may consider that they as 'the advertising experts' know better: this can quickly lead to an adversarial debate about strategy which sours the relationship, and holds things up.”

His solution is that rather than think of the client brief to the agency as a one-way set of instructions, the 'briefing' be treated as joint process of strategy development.  Rather than issuing a document, client and agency work together find answers to key questions.

Whatever the process of course, the key is to know the key questions to ask.

But beyond the fundamentals of a good strategy, there are three other requirements for producing good, effective work. They are perhaps 'softer' requirements, but hugely important for all that.

Provide belief

David Ogilvy in his advice to clients, urged clients to emancipate their agency from fear: “Frightened people are powerless to produce good advertising”. 

We’re in this together. And we’ve consistently found that we do our best work when there’s a client who believes that we can actually solve his or her problem. 

Nothing is better guaranteed to ensure your agency doesn’t succeed than knowing or intuiting that you don’t believe we have what it takes to succeed on your behalf. 

Provide trust

David Ogilvy in his advice to clients, also urged them not to compete with the agency in the creative area.

(I am now slightly wishing I hadn’t embarked on this post. Ogilvy’s advice is as timeless and pertinent as it was when first published).

You’ve presumably come to your agency because you have a challenge that you can’t solve on your own.  Because the agency has skills and expertise that you don’t possess within your organization. And - perhaps most importantly of all - because you believe in the ability of creative to create economic value for your business. 

It is worth noting that in the Royal Marines a superior commander’s orders will generally not detail how a unit is to achieve its specific mission. This is something that is left to subordinate commanders to decide.

So give the agency the space. Don’t pre-judge what the solution looks like. After all, their job is to come up with a solution that surprises both client and the consumer.

Now agencies are not entirely naive. They don’t expect their clients NOT to have an opinion. Increasingly these days, creativity is the output of collaboration. Not a monopoly exercised by the few. 

Inevitably then, the road to a solution will not always be smooth sailing. Arguably one of the greatest works of art the West has produced - the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel - were the outcome of a famously factious relationship between client and creator. An element of respectful friction is arguably not merely inevitable, but necessary (within reason), if truly great work is to be created.

Provide respect

And finally, respect both the time it takes to build great, effective ideas.  And the true economic value to a business of the agency makes. 

Provide the space to develop great ideas.

And if you regard advertising (in all its forms) as a vital source of competitive advantage and a key driver of revenue generation, then reward your agency appropriately. Not merely for the execution and delivery of creative assets. But for their true value to the business.

For clients who consistently respect both time and money tend to get an unequal share of an agency’s attention and energy. 

Anything else?

Any relationship is of course a two-way street or it is nothing. So the burden of responsibility in all of this lies as much with the agency as the client. If agencies fail to ask for these things, they have only themselves to blame.

So... Context, problems, insight, clarity, focus, belief, trust, and respect. 

What else can a client do to get the most out of their agency? What have I missed out?


Tim Broadbent, ‘Channel planning: Effectiveness lies in channel integration’, Admap, January 2011

Paul Feldwick, ‘The Feldwick Factor: Briefing agencies, Admap, May 2012

Arnoud Franken, Chris Paton, and Simon Rogers, ‘How the UK’s Royal Marines Plan in the Face of Uncertainty’, Harvard Business Review, ‘Leadership Lessons from the Military’ 

(As Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Marines, Chris Paton was responsible for the strategic planning of British forces in Afghanistan. He now consults, and you could do a lot worse than have him come and talk to you:

Lawrence Green, ‘Time adland got to the heart of clients’ business problems, Campaign, 4 February 2011 

David Ogilvy, Confessions Of An Advertising Man

Richard Rumelt. Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The Difference And Why It Matters