MarkLives (@MarkLives) has been 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 fourth and last, “Top 20 frustrations”.

Sarah Ritchie's How to Tango with a Tiger book coverTop 20 frustrations

Do you ever feel like you want to tear your hair out about working with agencies? You are not alone. Here are the top 20 common causes of friction between a marketer and their agency.

#1. Staff turnover

Just when you think you’ve trained your agency Account Manager in the way you like to work, or just when your Designer has memorised your brand guidelines, the agency staff changes. You invest a lot of time in developing your agency relationships, and up-skilling agency staff in your business, so excessive turnover in staff can place huge pressure on you and your team.

There’s not a lot you can do to stop a person leaving their job. What you can do is be the best type of client you can be, and make it as hard as possible for your agency contacts to want to stop working with you.

If you find that you are experiencing high staff turnover in your agency team, you’ll need to talk with agency management. Staff retention could become a deal-breaker as to whether you stay with the agency or not.

#2. Lack of key account management

It’s important that you request to have a dedicated Account Manager working on your account — no matter the size of your business. One single point of contact, across all your work, will build up historical knowledge over time. They will grow to understand your business and brand requirements and be able to turn work around more quickly and accurately than multiple Account Managers trying to piece together information (thus saving you money in the long run).

Assuming you have an Account Manager as your direct point of contact, it can then become frustrating if that contact person is too junior to handle your work effectively. If your agency promises that you will have a senior-level person working on your account, then that is what you should expect. If you find that the agency assigns a junior person to your work (without senior oversight), or that the senior-level Account Manager has become ‘detached’ from your work, then you need to address that as soon as possible.

#3. Cost management

Any time spent challenging cost estimates, finding inaccuracies in invoices, and battling over fees is unproductive, time-consuming, and should be unnecessary. Continual discussions about fees and errors can also erode trust, if not managed well.

Always ensure that you get a water-tight estimate or quote at the start of the process, and then keep monitoring the project or campaign to ensure that work remains within the expected price. Your agency should do this on your behalf, but that’s often the ideal, rather than the reality.

#4. Overcharging

First, you have to ask yourself how you know that your agency is overcharging you. Have you been charged more than was initially quoted? Have you been charged more this time than you were previously for precisely the same job? Are you being charged for work that a retainer should have covered? Or do you have a gut feeling that the price is incorrect or that something doesn’t seem quite right? Whatever the reason may be, you need to flag your concern as soon as you notice anything amiss. If it’s an error, you can deal with it and move on. If there is some deliberate inflation going on, then that is a different conversation!

The same applies to surprise invoices. No invoice or expense should be a surprise in the client/agency relationship. Everything should be either a known quantity upfront or your agency should be communicating with you before changes or increases occur.

#5. Requests to increase the budget

Are you training your agency to know that you give them a fixed project or campaign budget, or do you regularly try to ‘find more budget’ when requested? If an agency thinks they can get more, they will certainly try. They can always do something bigger, or place more ads, or use an additional marketing channel. It’s up to you to stipulate that the budget figure given IS the budget.

#6. Not adding value

You may be paying your agency to be order-takers — order in, production out. If that’s what you’re after, then perfect. However, if you want your agency to identify opportunities to add value to your business, share their expertise, and teach you a thing or two, then you may need to make that crystal-clear when you discuss the health of your client/agency relationship. Whilst some agencies excel at the concept of ‘adding value’, some need a nudge in the right direction.

#7. Complacency

Just like any relationship, once the newness has worn off, there is a danger that complacency could set in (especially with long-standing agency partnerships). If you find that your agency output is no longer evolving; if your agency has stopped looking for new ways to deliver ideas and value; if the agency team doesn’t show the passion or right attitude for your work; if you feel that you are being taken for granted; if communication has slackened off; or if you just don’t feel ‘loved’ anymore, then you need to say something. Remember, a lot of dissatisfied relationships end in divorce — even business ones!

#8. Quality of work

As much as you would like to think that award-winning Designers will be working on your projects, the reality is that most agency teams are made up of a mix of experience — from fresh-out-of-university juniors through to I-can-do-that-in-my-sleep seniors. The trick is that you may not know who you’ll get, and you’ll just see the output at the end. The reality is that some juniors can turn out fantastic work, and — conversely — 20 years in the business still won’t guarantee that you’ll like the result.

What you should expect is that any work done by a junior will have the oversight (and sometimes art direction) of a more senior Creative and that all work that you receive has been proof-read and approved before it reaches your eyes.

The bottom line is that you have to be happy with the quality of the work that you receive (no matter who does it), and you need to flag any issues of quality or consistency as they arise.

#9. Speed

In an agency context, ‘speed of delivery’ is not as relevant as ‘meeting timelines and expectations’. If you have worked out a timeline for delivery, or have milestones to meet, and the agency is missing the key time-markers, then this is an issue. If the agency has promised they will get a proof to you by a certain time, and then fails to deliver (without communicating with you), then this is a matter of breaking your trust. If you can remove ‘speed’ from your mind and re-context the situation in terms of how the agency has managed your expectations or has created a realistic timeline, then ensuing conversations should be more productive.

‘Speed of response’ comes down to communication expectations. If your agency is taking a long time to get back to you on your requests or messages, then you need to have a chat about communicating promptly, and what that means to you. You want to feel like your agency WANTS to work on your projects, rather than only progressing jobs after you chase them!

You may also experience another speed issue, and that could be due to an agency having too many fingers in the campaign-pie. The internal processes, of many agencies (particularly the big, integrated ones), can mean that work gets pushed between account management, strategy, creative, and media — often one department after the other — and that can all take time. Modern marketing demands a better, more-streamlined process with a faster path-to-market.

#10. Creative not meeting the brief

That’s a big problem, considering you are paying your agency to deliver on a brief! The ‘miss’ could be major — such as off-brief; flawed strategy; flawed creative based on a sound strategy; not understanding the objectives; incorrect data; or a high cost of execution. Or, it could be more fundamental, such as not adhering to brand guidelines, values or tone; not learning from past mistakes or conversations; gunning for the ‘sexy’ option; overthinking the obvious; or cherry-picking the ‘easy’ over the ‘right’.

Creative which does not meet a brief is symptomatic of things such as miscommunication (between you and your agency, or between your Account Manager and their team); laziness; poor listening skills; or an agency pushing an agenda (such as the prospect of winning an award).

Having a solid brief, getting your agency to do a reverse brief, and providing all the necessary content will at least give you peace of mind that you’ve done your bit. The next step is to find out where things went awry and what your agency will do to rectify the situation. If the initial briefing phase was not rock-solid, then you may have to assume some culpability in the outcome.

The problem may boil down to a talent issue, and whether or not your agency can provide the level of creative thinking and execution that you require. Let’s hope not, as that is a much more difficult problem to solve.

#11. Lack of business understanding

Agencies tend to focus on the creative journey (and meeting agency objectives), rather than taking time to understand a client’s business objectives and priorities. Creatively-led, production-based work is easy for any agency to produce without having to have a deep-level understanding of your business. However, if you would like your agency to be strategically led, or to operate as your business partner and add value to your company, then they need to be able to demonstrate a high degree of business acumen.

The amount of business nous that you’ll see will depend a lot on the person or people who are directly involved with running your account — the Account Manager(s), Strategist(s), and Creative(s). If you typically work day-to-day with more-junior agency staff, then the lack of business acumen could be a real issue. You’ll have to decide the level of understanding and input that you need from your agency, how it affects your work, and what you should do if this is not forthcoming.

#12. Answering questions with a made-up answer

You are paying your agency to be the expert, so it can be highly embarrassing (for them) when they don’t know the answer to one of your questions. Might they make up an answer? You bet! This could be your cue to suggest they instead say, “Sorry, I’ll need to get back to you on that.” Calling their bluff is just fine if it means you can have more-honest conversations going forward.

#13. Not letting go of ideas

You want to work with Creatives that back their ideas 110% and believe that their solution is the right one for you. However, there is a point at which an idea needs to be dropped, for any one of a variety of reasons (it’s impractical, doesn’t meet the brief, doesn’t fit within the budget, the timing is off, etc.). Whilst receiving an inappropriate idea is unfortunate, the situation can become annoying when the agency won’t let the idea go. Everything is up for debate (after all, creative work is subjective). However, there may come the point where you need to play the ‘client card’, thank your agency, and move onto the next idea.

#14. Too many layers

How many agency staff does it take to change a lightbulb? Good question, and I bet you’ll find out the answer on your next invoice. If a large agency assigns too many resources to a brief, you’ll get a large invoice in return. Too many layers can also lead to information getting lost in translation (eg from Account Managers to Strategists to Copywriters to Creatives). Smaller agencies tend to not suffer from layer-itis as much, and you may work directly with the Creative Director and Strategy Director, thus saving you time and a lot of money. If you do work with an agency that layers up their resources, a request for some streamlining may be in order!

#15. ‘Same old, same old’

Do you sometimes feel you’ve seen that creative execution before? Is your agency lacking in innovation and churning out similar creative concepts campaign after campaign? Perhaps your agency is playing it safe to keep your business. They may also be working under the premise of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ (which has its merits). ‘Change for the sake of change’ is the opposite problem which will cause issues of its own, so it all depends on your expectations and how you communicate those to your agency.

#16. Pitching your ideas back to you

Do you sometimes give your agency a brief that contains thought-starters for inspiration? Perhaps you were sitting at the agency table brainstorming, and you came up with a workable idea. Have you ever had those ideas pitched back to you as if they were the agency’s own and then charged you for it? You’ll need to judge each circumstance individually, but — in principle — you should be paying your agency for their ideas, not your own.

#17. Not listening

Be highly concerned if your Account Manager does not take notes during your briefing sessions — not even a Mega Memory graduate will be able to remember all of the information that you give during your meetings! Even if your Account Manager does take notes, that is still no guarantee that they are genuinely listening to what you are saying, or had the courage to clarify points with you. A lack of listening will manifest in one or more of three ways; (1) through the questions they ask; (2) in the reverse brief that you (should) receive; and (3) at the proofing stage. Remember, you shouldn’t have to pay the price for an Account Manager not recording the correct information.

#18. Lack of ownership

There are many unspoken expectations that you will have regarding your agency partners. Responsibility and accountability are two of the most important, and both will be tested in the tough times when things do not go according to either your plan or their plan. You want your agency to own their work and own their successes, and also own their mistakes. You should be able to quickly sniff out if an agency is trying to ‘pass the buck’ and then knock that sort of thing on its head.

#19. Lack of attention to detail

One small spelling error can tarnish the best-looking brochure, and one small number error in an annual report can spark a stock exchange meltdown. Hopefully, you will catch errors before they reach the public, but it’s the agency’s responsibility to ensure that they catch the errors before they send a proof to you. Errors that slip through are usually an indication that either the agency’s internal briefing or checking process has failed or they don’t have a process at all. Either way, if you see errors regularly, then you need to say something.

#20. Being contacted nights and weekends

Agency folk can work insanely long hours. They always have and they probably always will. What they may not appreciate is that their clients work ‘business hours’, and may only want to be contacted within business hours. Whatever way you want to work, you need to let your agency team know, and they should respect your wishes. The caveat to that would be if something is going wrong, or if they are trying to meet your deadline and need your input.


Whatever your frustrations, you need to talk them out with your agency. The more you bottle things up and stew about them, the worse you will feel without getting closer to a resolution or solution. Most of these frustrations can be easily solved once you bring the issues into the open.

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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