MarkLives (@marklives) is running four extracts from New Zealand client and agency specialist Sarah Ritchie‘s second book, “How to Tango with a Tiger: a marketer’s guide to working with creative communications agencies“, over several weeks. Here’s the third, “Are you a difficult client?”

Sarah Ritchie's How to Tango with a Tiger book coverTrue agency story

I had dealt with plenty of difficult clients and difficult personalities — it’s an accepted part of an Account Manager’s job. I was not, however, prepared to deal with a person who conducted business in a somewhat ‘unhinged’ manner. Let’s call this particular client ‘Miss X’.

We were asked by Miss X to prepare a suite of collateral for an upcoming event. The timeline was tight, but we knew we could complete the work if both Miss X and our agency met specific parameters.

We knew that Miss X tended to be opinionated, unpleasant, changeable, indecisive, abrupt, and not afraid to speak her mind. However, we felt the full fury of Pandora’s Box when we presented a video concept that Miss X did not like. In exchange for meeting Miss X’s brief, budget, and timeline, our account management and creative teams received verbal abuse to the point where Miss X made one of our team members cry.

Unfortunately, this display was the icing on the cake of similar (though less explosive) dealings with Miss X.

As the most senior Account Manager on Miss X’s account, the Mother Bear in me wanted to protect my team from further abuse and kick this client to the curb immediately — project unfinished. However, I knew we needed to assess the situation as objectively as possible, so we called an emergency team meeting.

Putting our boiling emotions aside, we asked ourselves some tough questions:

  • Had we (the agency team) done anything to inflame the situation?
  • Was our creative sub-standard (did we ‘deserve’ all or part of the response we received)?
  • Could we have managed this client better through the creative process?
  • Could we have done a better job in creating realistic expectations?
  • What was this client worth to us in both past and ongoing agency revenue?
  • What would be the cost to our agency (word of mouth and monetary) of aggravating Miss X by withdrawing our services with the project unfinished?

After our analysis, we could see that the situation was neither clear-cut nor all Miss X’s fault. There were parts of the process that we could have handled better, but that still did not excuse the appalling and unjustified treatment that our team received.

We decided to finish the suite of collateral that we had promised to create. The consensus was that the potential for negative word of mouth was not worth jeopardising our reputation. Besides that, we wanted to make sure we got paid every cent that we were owed.

The revenue from Miss X was neither substantial nor regular, so the jury is still out whether we’ll agree to work with this client again. If (and it is a big if) we did, we would radically change the way we worked with her:

  • Constraints would be tighter.
  • Reverse briefs, quotes, and timelines would be more detailed.
  • We would request that we dealt with another member of staff rather than Miss X. If that would not be possible, then client contact would be made by one senior-level Account Manager only (Miss X would not be allowed within 10 feet of any junior or creative staff).”

(Sarah Ritchie, Author)

by Sarah Ritchie. Account Managers would say that their work is a breeze — that is until you put clients into the mix. Just when they think their work is black/white, up/down, on/off, clients will add an element of unpredictability and complication.

Some clients can also be ‘scary’ (especially for junior agency staff). They can judge, demand, and disagree, all of which can be intimidating for those yet to grow a thick skin.

For the most part, clients are decent, reasonable, rational people who respect their agencies for being professional suppliers that help their business. However, every so often agencies will come across a client who is rude, demanding, unpleasant, or even aggressive. This type of client behaviour is (fortunately) not ‘normal’, but it does happen.

How do you think your agencies would describe you? Here is a list of various types of ‘difficult’ clients. Do you see yourself reflected in any of these descriptions? If so, do you need to do anything to change that perception?

The Prickly Pear

If you are a Prickly Pear, you will probably be prickly on an ongoing basis. Your agency may not enjoy doing business with you, but they will get used to your ways over time. It’s likely that you have a soft centre, so your agency’s challenge is to find out how to push past your grouchy thorns.

The Whip

Are you usually mild-mannered, yet sometimes unpredictable? For example, your agency is doing its job well; they have a good relationship with you; and are producing great work, yet you may decide to give them a scolding that leaves them reeling.

The Combatant

Do you enjoy being argumentative to feel like a victor and exert a measure of control? This reaction may be because you have little control in another area of your work or personal life, or you like the exhilaration of being in a power position.

The Ticking Time Bomb

Are you the type of client who is changeable and where your agency feels like they are walking on eggshells around you? You may be moody, inconsistent, and explosive.

The Centre of the Universe

Centres of the Universe can come in many different packages.

  • The Narcissist (you have a sense of entitlement and self-focus).
  • The Power Player (you compensate for your feelings of weakness by using status, people and things to feel more important).
  • The Control Freak (you like to control conversations, people and projects to feel good about yourself).
  • The Intimidator (you seek to establish your superiority by instilling fear in others).

The Downer

Downers are negative. You may be closed-minded and refuse to explore alternative possibilities. You may block important conversations because you are stuck in your own mind, ways and opinions.

You may be a naysayer who believes that things won’t work and you are not interested in hearing solutions. You may be ill-tempered; full of resentment; ignorant; or stubborn. All of these personality traits can make getting a project or campaign off the ground or out the door extremely difficult.

The Complainer

If you are a Complainer, you will be continuously hard-to-please, and love to complain about many and little things. If an agency knows that you are a chronic Complainer, then they will likely cover themselves against any unnecessary complaints and additional author’s alterations by invoicing you for the extra work, or padding out quotes with ‘danger money’!

An agency response

One school of thought would be to let clients say and do whatever they want and take whatever treatment they get on the chin. Another school of thought would say that being spoken to disrespectfully is unacceptable and that action should be taken. As with many opinions, somewhere in the middle will usually lie the best way forward.

If you are difficult or unpleasant to work with, your agency has the choice to either continue working with you or to cease working with you. Assuming that your work is profitable to your agency, then agency management will most likely take the route that generates the most revenue and expect their staff to harden-up, bite their tongues, and get on with the work.

However, there is a difference between a client being unpleasant, and one that is being abusive or aggressive — which is never acceptable and should not be tolerated. If you fall into this category, then it’s highly likely that your agency will stop working with you.


If you tend to lean toward one of the personalities listed previously, then that is going to put undue pressure on your agency partners — thus making their already-challenging job that much harder.

Relationships are never easy, so the more you get to know how each other ticks, and how both your businesses operate, the more trust and respect will build up over time. This understanding should ultimately reduce the amount of friction that you may feel, and how you choose to respond when things don’t go quite to plan.

See also


Sarah RitchieNew Zealander Sarah Ritchie, founder of and author of award-winning “How to Wrestle an Octopus”, shares her wealth of experience from a 25-year career in advertising and design agencies, as well as insights from over 1 100 interviews with marketing and advertising professionals from 30 different countries, in her second book, “How to Tango with a Tiger: a marketer’s guide to working with creative communications agencies“, available now on Amazon. “Extracts” is a MarkLives column featuring excerpts from books and research relevant to advertising, marketing and related industries.

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