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Home » The Uncomfortable Side of Client-Agency Partnerships (And Why It’s Critical)

The Uncomfortable Side of Client-Agency Partnerships (And Why It’s Critical)

Here’s a scenario that’s unpleasantly familiar to anyone who has worked in marketing: A client has an idea for an ad. The agency thinks the idea is bad. Like, really bad, as in harmful to the client’s business. How much should the agency push back? Is it ever wiser, or safer, to go along with a problematic idea?

From the perspective of some clients, “He who pays the piper calls the tune.” In other words, the client is the one paying for the ad to be created, so when all is said and done, they are the final arbiter of whether it’s good or bad.

They’re absolutely right.

But here is another truth: Despite that power, the client should—like an ethical judge assigned to a case that hits too close to home—recuse themselves from making creative decisions. Why? Because they hired the marketing agency precisely in order to make those creative decisions. This is the true value of the agency/client partnership.

Sure, some aspects of marketing are subjective and therefore open to interpretation by anybody. Is this ad funny? Does that commercial make the product seem cool? But good creative decisions marry subjectivity with research and experience. An agency worth its salt can tell you with confidence how a concept is likely to be received because they’re looking at it from a number of angles: Is the concept consistent with the brand voice? Has the idea already been done by other brands? Does it have the potential to be offensive to a demographic the client might not have considered? Does it move the brand forward or distract from the benefit message?

Going along with a bad idea in order to keep a client happy is a failing proposition for a few reasons. For one thing, it’s marketing malpractice. To knowingly give a client flawed creative violates the sacred vow we all take when we finally descend from Mt. Disruptor after seven years of studying AdWeek and shoving our feelings into buckets of gravel to toughen them up. It hurts our souls. Even worse, it hurts our portfolios. Worst of all, it hurts both businesses involved.

The other reason it’s a bad idea to go along with a bad idea is that eventually, the client will get wise to the fact that their marketing is, well, bad. And when that happens, will the client say, “I know I pressured you into some ideas that you weren’t hot about, and now my marketing is tanking. So give me your good ideas, and this time I’ll listen.” Nope. They’ll say, “I’m leaving you for an agency that can give me something fresh.” And they’ll be right to do it. 

We’ve discovered that the best way to resolve a creative impasse is a frank, open conversation. When there’s trust between a client and an agency, it’s possible to talk through the ramifications of what the agency considers to be a bad choice, make suggestions, and steer the client to the solution they’re looking for without harming their brand. Trust is the secret sauce that makes difficult conversations more palatable.

In the final reckoning, if you’re a client, you have to decide whether you trust the marketing agency enough to let them do the work you hired them for. If the answer is yes, you can contribute your deep industry knowledge and let the agency take that information in bold, surprising new directions. If not, it’s time to find a new marketing partner.

Our advice: Make sure you find one who can tell you “No.”