Client Agency relationships

12 danger signs for client-agency business relationships

Posted by Matthew Stibbe
Speed Reading Mode

From experience, here are 12 danger signs for business relationships between agencies and their clients.

All of my current clients are lovely, professional and efficient. This post is not about them. But in 10 years of professional writing, as a journalist and as a marketing copywriter, I’ve had a few bad experiences that have left me sadder and wiser. Here are a few warning signs that things may go off the rails with client-agency relationships.


1. Bad brief. Even if a client can’t give you a detailed brief of what they want, they should be able to answer a few simple questions: who is this for, what do you want them to do/think/believe when they read it, how will it be delivered etc. Most bad projects started with an unclear, inconsistent or non-existent brief.

2. Last minute. Watch out for clients who regularly want something at the very last minute. You know the sort of thing: 4,000 words in three days. This most often happens when I work for agencies rather than directly for their clients and it suggests, to me, that the agency isn’t well organised. (Of course, if it was, they probably would have done the work in-house and I would have lost the business, so perhaps I can’t complain too much about this.)

3. Give me a discount. People have watched The Apprentice and think that good business means demanding a discount on everything. Negotiation is one thing – your quo for my quid. But I don’t give discounts simply because someone asks for them. Why should I? I’m busy and if I do project x at a discount, I miss out on the money I would have made doing project y at full price or spending the weekend with my family instead of working. In other words, every discount has an opportunity cost. Be especially wary of the ‘quantity discount’ proposal. A vague promise that ‘there will be lots more work later if you do a good job on this one’ is not a bulk order and doesn’t deserve a discount.

4. All things to all people. A typical example is ‘this white paper needs to appeal to C-level executives, mid-level managers, IT specialists and postmen.’ This usually means that the client hasn’t thought through the target audience and objectives clearly. This kind of brief makes it very difficult to write. As a wise editor once said to me: ‘if you try to write about everything, you write about nothing. If you try to write for everyone, you write for nobody.’

5. Copywriting is NOT the solution. I have seen a couple of cases where agencies have outsourced their copywriting as a last-ditch attempt to resolve deep structural problems with their client relationship. They hope that I can sprinkle some pixie dust on the copy and make their client happy. Sometimes I can do this, but more often it’s like bringing an attractive 18-year old Scandinavian au pair into a failing marriage. Or something like that.

6. Can’t talk to people. Talking to people – interviewing them, if you like – is an essential part of the way I work. The less direct, real information I get the worse my work is. Some agencies don’t want me to talk to their clients for fear that I will poach them. Other times, clients don’t want me to bother their colleagues. But they also want my best work. Cue HAL-style contradiction. “I’m sorry, Dave. I can’t let you do that.”

7. No purchase order. I have had a few cases in ten years where someone has given me work without any sense of how to pay me when it’s done or any attention to the business side of the project. This happens occasionally in very big companies and it can mean months of delay while I have to remotely manage their vendor approval, purchase order and invoicing process. A good client knows how this stuff works because they use it all the time. A bad client plays fast and loose with your time and their company policies.

8. Too many meetings. I get very nervous if the ratio between commissioned words and meetings or calls falls below 500:1. I’ve had some 500 word projects that have required four or five phone calls and dozens of emails. The problem here is not that the client is giving you too much information (never a problem, really) but that the client doesn’t value your time or they are trying to deal with political issues by involving lots of people in the project. Both bode badly.

9. Too many moving parts. A sales and marketing project that starts with too many meetings can lead to endless rounds of revision where dozens of people get to have a say. What’s especially time-consuming and annoying is when I finish the third or fourth round of edits and I think the project is done. Then, a month later, that version comes back with redlining because another layer of management has been invoked. And then it goes to legal. And then it goes to the brand police. And then the whole process starts again. This doesn’t happen often but it’s very time-consuming.

10. Changing personnel. Probably the only bad project of 2010 went wrong when a marketing manager and his assistant both left (at different times for different reasons) mid-project. The result was, effectively, a contract renegotiation with extreme prejudice. The problems were made more complicated because neither manager would talk to me directly, leaving their assistant as the only point of contact. This lead to delays, miscommunication and indecision.

11. Small companies. Again and again, small companies cause more stress than big ones. The CEO acts like a big shot but doesn’t know how to delegate or take advice. They’re not used to working with agencies and expect everyone to act like a full time employee. They have limited budgets and stop-start projects. I like big clients who know what they want and it’s no surprise that my client roster is mainly multinationals (Microsoft, HP, Symantec etc.)

12. Late payment. This doesn’t happen very often in the corporate world but magazines are notorious for paying journalists very late (if at all). My view is that once you have finished the work, the fee is your money. If someone doesn’t pay you promptly without a good reason, it’s pretty close to theft. I know small companies have rough patches and I know that big companies have bureaucracy and I try to make allowances. However, paying suppliers late suggests either a lack of working capital (in which case you might never get paid) or a lack of respect for suppliers (in which case you don’t want to work for them). Avoid bad payers like the plague – you’re a writer not a debt-collector.

See also: 11 things to do at the start of a new relationship.

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