by Alistair Mokoena (@AlistairMokoena) The bulk of issues experienced in client-agency relationships is not about the work; it is about relationship management. Yet you will hear many people say, “Just sort out the work and the relationship will be fine.” This is not true.

Great work only buys you a day of happiness. The relationship issues are bound to resurface on day three, hence the expression “You are only as good as your last great work.” If the underlying relationship is strong, clients will generally accept that it takes a few attempts to nail the work.

Mr and Ms Smiley by njaj courtesy of
Image by njaj courtesy of


In my view, the main cause of client-agency issues is the attitudes we take into these relationships.

Take a typical love relationship. In most cases, a guy meets a girl. He finds her attractive and makes a move on her. The girl thinks the guy is not too bad and agrees to go on a date with him.

This is where courtship starts. The guy is excited at the prospect of winning this girl over. He puts his best foot forward and is generally on his best behavior. In other words, the guy’s mindset may be described as playing to win. The girl, tough, is most likely treading cautiously through the courtship phase so she can minimise the risk of making the wrong choice. Her mindset is about being circumspect, vigilant and ultra-suspicious until the guy proves that he is indeed a knight in shining armour.

Normalising the balance of power

The courtship is likely to last a while so that the parties may get to know each other reasonably well before signing up for a relationship. While this is happening, the two parties start to get comfortable with each other and become more real with each other. This has the important effect of normalising the balance of power between the two and also provides each party with enough insight to determine whether they have found the right partner or not.

It is at this point that most people walk away from potential relationships without fearing that there will be repercussions such as reputational damage.

In adland, courtship takes a different form and the balance of power is seldom evenly distributed. The client enters into the courtship phase with more power because it is doing the hiring. The agency is looking for a profitable client with endless creative opportunities, so it will do almost everything in its power to endear itself to this prospective client.

Testing agency capabilities

The big difference is that courtship process in adland is short, unnatural, controlled, forced and often unsettling. Most clients give you the poker face in a pitch and assume the role of judge and critic. The process is not collaborative but rather a test of the agency’s capabilities.

You literally have three encounters with the client before it appoints you. First there’s a briefing session, then a chemistry session and finally the pitch day. This hardly gives the parties an opportunity to get to know each other, and therefore the risk of making a bad decision is very high for both parties.

Very often you come out of a pitch process with mixed feelings and many questions about the suitability of a prospective client to your business. If this were a love relationship, many of us would walk away but, because a pitch represents a business opportunity, we convince ourselves that our hunch is wrong and we pray that we are granted the account.


As human beings, many of us are naïve enough to think we can change our partners. The reality is that clients do not appoint you so that you can come change them. As far as they are concerned, they have hired you to do a job and therefore that gives them licence to be.

If clients are rude, disrespectful, don’t listen, never want to be wrong and negotiate unfairly, we are foolish to think we will change them after landing the account. If they don’t value you from the onset, walk away. The best time to do so is in the courtship or pitch stage before they appoint you. Mature clients will respect you for your honesty while vindictive clients, whom you don’t want anyway, will hold this against you.

The sad truth is very few agencies are prepared to turn down business and are therefore unlikely to walk away from a pitch process. The allure of revenue growth is too strong to make us see the wood for the trees.

The way out

There is a way out of this. It’s called a business development plan. It’s a proactive plan that helps you take charge and dictate the terms of your agency’s revenue growth. It forces you to be clear about the growth you seek and to choose the kind of clients you want to do business with and the kind of work you enjoy.

You can also plan many engagements with prospective clients. This gives you a better chance of getting to know each other.

Ambulance-chasing is a dangerous exercise and a waste of resources. Revenue is not the only important criteria for choosing a client. Chemistry, value systems and an appetite for creativity are critically important — the health and happiness of your agency should count more than revenue growth.

Courtship needs to start way before a pitch is ever announced. Courtship with a desired prospect should be a daily thing. Take ownership of it and make it work for you.


Alistair Mokoena November 2014

Alistair Mokoena (@AlistairMokoena) — a Unilever-trained Chartered Marketer with lots of blue-chip marketing experience — joined Ogilvy & Mather Johannesburg as MD in January 2015). Formerly, he was MD of FCB Joburg. One of his favourite pastimes is driving around in the bush, photographing wild animals. Alistair, who switched from client- to agency side at the end of 2012, contributes the monthly “The Switch” column, covering relationships inside agencies and between agencies and clients, to


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