by Johanna McDowell (@jomcdowell) From a client perspective, non-delivery by the agency is a critical factor and the main reason for the end of a relationship. This emerged during the first of eight sessions of the IAS Marketers Masterclass, recently held in Johannesburg.

Laptop in Meeting Room by sixninepixels courtesy of
Image by sixninepixels courtesy of

The purpose of these masterclasses is to help marketer improve their understanding of and knowledge around everything that they may encounter during their day-to-day management of their marketing communication campaigns and their agencies.

The topic for the first class was: “Getting the best out of your agencies.”


From a client perspective, non-delivery by the agency is a critical factor and the main reason for the end of a relationship. Non-delivery may include:

  1. Lack of consistency — campaigns or concepts might be wonderful and on track one week, and completely off track the next. This is hard work and creates unnecessary reverts, lengthening of approval times, re briefing etc.
  2. Poor time management, resulting in campaigns running late. This might be caused by late client briefing, or the agency’s failure to deliver a suitable campaign solution on time, thus necessitating more work and delays in campaign implementation, which then has a huge impact upon clients as they have their own sales plans that the organisation has to meet.
  3. Costing — when additional unexpected costs result in tensions and overruns on budgets. This is simply not allowed in the corporate environment:
    • Agencies might mistakenly believe that the client has a slush fund to cover “overages” but the reality is that marketers are heavily penalised, possibly even fired, if they fail to keep within the allowed marketing budgets.
    • What also happens is that agencies may be inconsistent with their costs (going back to point one) and this may also have a severe impact upon client budgeting.
    • If costs are not clear between each party, then both parties suffer in the long run.
  1. Lack of strategic input. Clients do expect agencies to understand their business and to be able to give strategic input; it is often the reason that a client will want the involvement of an agency in its marketing processes. Clients need to make it clear that this is a key component of the relationship — if it is. Equally, if agencies are not required to give strategic input, then they should be told this at the outset of the relationship.
  2. Failure to listen to the brief. This is often one of the reasons for delays in implementation of campaigns. The client briefs but the agency decides to do its own thing when it reverts. Or believes it may know better what client needs. Or simply does not pay enough attention to the detail. Or there may not even be a proper written brief which the agency can refer to and use for reverts.
  3. Poor creativity. This is a term that is often used but in reality is difficult to quantify or qualify. Again, what may be very creative for one client might be very average for another. Agency and client need to agree in advance of campaigns upon the level of innovation or input that they are looking for — especially in a situation where the briefs are coming from different departments than the central marketing department, for example.
  4. Change of agency personnel. The client-facing people in an agency are often the most important in terms of client maintenance. Equally if there is a strong creative or strategic connection, clients will be uncomfortable with an unexpected level of change. However, if change is managed well with proper handovers, so that clients do not have to keep briefing new team members on their business, then this will be obviated.

In turn, agencies talk about:

  1. Breakdown in communication. Often the outcome of the poor delivery above, it results in clients starting:
  • To not trust the agency — its timelines, costs, promises and strategies
  • To not relate to the people on their account — getting hugely irritated with the lack of delivery, poor interpretation of briefs, inaccurate contact reports and status reports, and vague costing.
  1. Poor relationship with clients: “They just do not like us”. This is a manifestation of the poor delivery, change of agency personnel, poor handovers, poor timekeeping, etc.

Service-level agreements

Both parties agree that a service-level agreement (SLA) is vital to the success of the relationship so that expectations are managed on both sides. The SLA needs to include:

  • Scope of work from client for the period (could be 12 months) with a detailed calendar of planned activity
  • Hourly rates from agency personnel
  • Names of agency staff/titles included in the agency team who will service the account
  • Expected outputs over a 12-month period
  • Measurements of success of campaigns
  • Normal turnaround times from brief to first presentation
  • Turnaround times for contact reports
  • Turnaround times for status reports
  • Frequency of meetings; venue for meetings
  • Evaluation of the relationship and how this will be done; frequency
  • Whether this will be linked to a financial incentive, enabling the agency to earn more with a positive results

While both parties know that this is the right thing to do, and a lot of time is often spent on the legal and financial aspects of the client-agency relationship, there is often a failure to commit to the agreed-upon deliverables in practice, eg lack of written briefs by client, poor time management by agency, and poor handovers when personnel on either side change.

Relationship tools

Also, there is often no formal structure for evaluating the relationship and the danger with this is that it might be tacked onto the end of a general meeting — not conducive to a frank discussion. There are several local and international client-agency relationship tools in the market place, and I recommend that clients and agencies use whichever one is most appropriate for their needs as part of their ongoing commitment to the client-agency relationship.

In this way, clients will get the best out their agencies, and an atmosphere of trust and professionalism will prevail.


Johanna McDowell


Johanna McDowell (@jomcdowell) is managing director of the Independent Agency Search and Selection Company (IAS), and she is one of the few experts driving this mediation and advisory service in SA and globally. Currently she is running the IAS Marketers Masterclass, a programme consisting of masterclasses held in Cape Town and in Johannesburg. Twice a year she attends AdForum Worldwide Summits.


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