You’ve identified problems in how you are managing your client or agency relationships – now what do you do about them?

Last week’s article clearly struck a chord with many in the creative and consultancy industries. Judging by the comments I’ve been receiving via social media and email, grinding levels of frustration (enabled by the vicious malware of imposter syndrome) have become a virtual way of life for too many clients and agencies. There seems to be a great deal of uncertainty across both sides of the table as to what the root causes of such relationship problems are – and how to resolve them.

Uncertainty can be a lonely place. It also leads to bracing levels of nihilism. Many senior clients now have an ingrained disrespect for agencies: they feel that their best hope is to try and pick the least worst option. Many agency people have come to believe that their industry is inexorably damaged.

Both of these viewpoints amount to little more than self-pitying drivel. Most of the reasons behind agency relationship dysfunction are diagnosable and treatable – and they do merit treatment. As I’ve asserted before, agencies have a valuable role to play in the marketplace, especially in a world where the supply of great creative talent can’t keep pace with demand. And clients who exhibit verve and imagination will always be necessary to inspire, sponsor and nurture great creative work.

Outside of low self-awareness, the problem is that many clients and agency people simply lack the tools and techniques to be able to bring the best out of each other.

An explanation of why this is the case merits a longer article than we have space for now, but at least some of the roots of this problem can be found in the lack of priority given to the creative disciplines in mainstream education. ‘Being a creative’ or ‘being a marketer’ is simply not a status-rich vocational aspiration in the way that, say, being a lawyer or accountant is. This is shameful: even in tough times, business success favours lateral thinkers.

A lack of focus within many national education agendas on building the skills necessary to develop good creative and marketing careers means that many who end up working in these industries don’t function effectively as business people. And the problems extend far beyond education into the working world. The few industry bodies that exist are toothless, inexplicably self-regarding, and seemingly motivated more by profit than by purpose. Funding for training, both client and agency side, is often sacrificed for a price-driven race to the bottom, as though the ability to build an outstanding 21st century business is predicated primarily on efficiency. (Answer: it isn’t.) From an early age, all but the few lucky clients and agency staff who find good mentors are effectively left alone to supervise their own development.

Although I am rarely one to throw in the towel, fixing the education system and the industry establishment might be best filed under ‘pipe dream’. So what can be done? In the hope of continuing the discussion, here are ten practical suggestions as to how you can start addressing the problems in your own business – and, in the process, with your clients or agencies (depending on which side of the table you sit).

This isn’t anything like an exhaustive list, but I hope that it helps. And even if not all of them resonate with you, the key take-out is this:

The tools and techniques required to prosper in any industry aren’t innate. They need to be learned. And the fact that they can be is a big reason to be cheerful.


1. Decide what game you are really in. Any great relationship is founded on a clear sense of self-identity. ‘Self-identity’ goes way beyond defining your category, honing your team ethos, or developing a brand vision. As my always-insightful friend and colleague Deri Llewellyn-Davies says, there are four critical questions – all of which need answering, and preferably in the following order:

  • What is our passion?
  • What is our unique value?
  • What business opportunity do we serve?
  • What kind of relationships do we want and need in order to prosper?

Agencies: answering the above will help you articulate the transformation that you are looking to bring about with your clients. Clients: answering the above will help you understand what transformations you should be seeking.

2. Map out the ideal arc of your relationships. First, accept that all client/agency relationships are finite (believe it or not, this is oddly liberating). Then map how you want yours to play out from the moment that the other party walks in through the door to the moment they leave. Factor in onboarding time, and identify upfront likely triggers, such as statutory reviews, that predict exit. Take into account predictable emotional downturns, so you steel yourself for the long haul. Now determine the capacity you have realistically got to achieve a worthwhile result (for example, if you’re President of the US, election cycles mean that it’s about two years). Communicate this as an open and honest frame to your partner(s).

3. Undertake a pre-mortem. Imagine you’re three years in the future, and everything you both set out to achieve has failed – a complete, no-survivors, stop-the-press catastrophe. Now write down all the contributing factors on both sides of the table that led to this outcome. When you think you’ve uncovered them all, go again. Then go again. On your fourth or fifth ‘dig’, you’ll have located the real points of potential failure. The good news? You can now develop strategies to overcome them before they occur.

4. Establish your sacred cows. Determine what you’re not prepared to sacrifice in your relationships, and make it clear that you are only engaging on this basis. Sometimes, these decisions might feel risky – for example, you might assert that you do not negotiate on professional fees (a principle we adopted at Corporate Punk from day one that has served us well with our clients and suppliers).

Sometimes, the decisions will feel like things you should always have been doing – for example, stating that no presentation of creative work will take place over conference call under any circumstance (this almost never delivers a good result). Whatever the perceived cost, the real point is that sacred cows breed mutually respectful relationships, the benefits of which can be business-changing.

5. Enter a creative contract. Establish an agenda that describes what you’re seeking to achieve creatively. Write a manifesto that sums it up, and get your client or agency to sign up to it. (Better still, create it with your client or agency.) Crucially, the manifesto must feature tangible measures of success, for the simple reason that you both need a benchmark against which you can appraise progress. In the drafting, do everything you can to avoid fluff. (A clue that you are about to go twirling into the abyss is the appearance of any of the following words: paradigm, challenger, champion, customer-centric, visionary, excellence, very, genuinely, really.)



6. Invert your standard review process. Instead of reviewing each other, why not review yourselves in front of your client or agency partner, in a spirit of openness and honesty? Then discuss how aligned you were in your perceptions of each other’s performance, and proceed accordingly.

7. Invest in meeting mentorship. Yes, I know: budgets are limited, time is limited, training doesn’t work… But the fact remains that most meetings are a colossal drain on human capital – and inadvertently compromise many collaborative relationships. Think laterally about how to tackle this: could you hire a drama teacher to change your team’s body language, an interior designer to improve your room layout, or a coach to critique how you communicate? As a start point, can you articulate what a great meeting would look and feel like? If so, write it down. Then think creatively with your partners about how you can make it happen.

8. Abolish PowerPoint. Forget religion: PowerPoint is the real opium of the masses. Just agree to stop using it in all your meetings – or, if you can’t commit to the full cold turkey, banish it from all contexts except briefing and final presentation meetings. Beyond the obvious fact that you’ll suddenly have an abundance of free time in which to collaborate creatively, an absence of PowerPoint will help everyone in the room make eye contact. It is remarkable how many meetings don’t feature enough of this, and the subtle but profound impact on relationship quality that is created by stopping everyone staring ahead at a screen.

9. Get good with the Zone of Uncomfortable Conversations. Understand that your job is not to be liked; it is to be effective in the context of the relationship and the goals you’ve established. (To be clear, this is not to say that actively seeking to be disliked is a good thing either.) Effective collaborative and creative relationships require competing agendas to be reconciled for the common good. Work out how to get uncomfortable without feeling the fear of being uncomfortable, from a place of respect for the other people in the relationship. Practice this. Talk openly with your partners about its implications for your relationship with them. And get coaching on this area for you and your team if you feel that they need it (for example, if the idea of ‘getting uncomfortable without feeling the fear of being uncomfortable’ sounds unachievable and a bit weird).

10. Always, always, remain grounded in your value. Agencies: your clients are coming to you because they have a problem that they don’t know how to solve. Clients: your agencies are coming to you because they want to help solve a problem that you are smart enough to know you have. On that basis alone, your relationship should feel like a marriage of equals – and the key way to ensure that it does is to remain clear on where your unique value lies (see point 1). As I said at the start, imposter syndrome is malware. Treat it as such, and watch your decision-making and relationship quality soar.

There is a Number 11, too. The journey to effective creative relationships might not be easy, and it’s not always best to attempt it alone. So work out where you need support – then go and find the best you can afford. If this feels tantamount to declaring failure, know that there’s no shame in seeking advice. For one thing, almost all successful leaders recognise that they need it. For another, the thousands of views, and hundreds of shares and comments, generated by last week’s article demonstrate that you’re far from alone in the problems you face.

You can also join me and the team in London next month if you fancy exploring this subject further.

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