The Client-Agency Dynamic

One of the most rewarding, frustrating, enriching and infuriating aspects of working in a service agency is dealing with clients. I often joke that my job would be perfect if it wasn’t for clients – but truth be told, I love our clients. Without our clients I would very literally not have a job. It’s that simple.

But the affection I feel for my clients goes far beyond the sober realisation that they pay my salary. Clients enable me to work in this magnificent industry of ours, with all its beauty and creativity and companionship and cutting edge technology. Clients empower me to create amazing things and tell powerful stories. Clients drive me to constantly improve and deliver the very best work I and my team are capable of.

Clients are, in a very real and tangible sense, the reason I do this job.

And yet clients can also be excruciating to deal with, impossible to please, and obtusely difficult to communicate with. It’s that client-agency dynamic that makes agency life, in varying degrees, both profoundly awesome and mind-numbingly depressing.

The Best Clients

It’s easy to describe the best type of clients, because all the clients we love collaborating with have one thing in common: They understand digital.

For us the best clients are those that have at least a passable understanding of what websites and digital marketing can do. Generally speaking we find that the more educated a client is on all things digital, the stronger and more successful our partnership with them is.

This image is supposed to invoke happiness

This image is supposed to invoke happiness

The more advanced a client’s understanding of digital marketing, the better for us, as invariably this will be a client that knows exactly where agencies can fit in to their overall marketing. More importantly, these clients have realistic expectations of what can be achieved, and a very clear framework within which our creative ideas can flourish.

This actually makes them demanding clients as they simply won’t settle for anything but the best, but that is an expectation we wholeheartedly strive to live up to because these clients understand the value of quality work and will pay appropriate rates.

The Worst Clients

It’s equally easy to describe the kind of clients we’re now actively trying to avoid: clients that treat agencies like cheap labour.

These are the clients that move the goalposts all the time and don’t expect to see an increased bill. These are the clients that call you up with inane requests and demand you to drop everything to fulfil their needs instantly. These are the clients that do not see an agency as a partner, but as a servant to cater to their every whim.

Not a good conference call

Not a good conference call

These types of clients are also very demanding, but in very different context. Rarely will these clients have an in-depth understanding of the digital realm, and never will they truly appreciate the value of an agency’s time and expertise. These clients often want front row seats for a dime and do not understand the concept of ‘billable hours’ – the very foundation of agency economics.

Invariably, these are clients that end up costing you more than they pay. Spotting such clients in the prospect phase is hard, so you’ll probably end up with one at some stage. But once you get them to sign on the dotted line, they become easy to identify as these clients sap your team’s morale, are rarely willing to compromise, and consistently have that big red mark against their name when you compare hours billed to hours worked on their account.

The Agency Proposition

Several years ago when I was made the digital director at what is now The Tomorrow Lab, we made a conscious decision to focus on clients we want to work with. This was a logical result of what we defined as our foundational principle: attract and retain the very best talent we could find.

For us, it all begins with great people. With great people who possess the right skills and, more importantly, the right attitude, we’re able to deliver awesome work for our clients. And to keep our talent happy and productive and engaged, we need to give them challenging work to do and wonderful clients to do it for.

The hard-working agency team

A hard-working agency team

Bad clients that treat us like unworthy servants erode our people’s morale, diminish our creativity, and undermine our commitment to quality. Bad clients result in our best talent not feeling appreciated and valued, and thus increase our risk of staff turnover. For me, that is an unacceptable situation. We work hard to find the very best people to strengthen our team, and we don’t want to risk losing them. No single client is worth that.

So for us, clients that treat us with respect and appreciate the value we add to their business are not simply wishful thinking – they are an absolutely crucial aspect of our agency’s success.

We go out of our way to find those clients; businesses that want to excel in the digital realm and understand that an agency built on passion, commitment, and an uncompromising devotion to quality can help them scale those heights.

[Image credits: Getty, Getty, Brand Etiquette]

Clients, Strategy


  1. Couldn’t have said this better. I find that some of the best clients can be actually those which don’t know much about digital but just let you get on and do your job. They don’t pretend to know anything and know you are the expert. Versus a client who pretends they know digital and just constantly interferes in the good job you are doing for them.

  2. Having had experience working with clients on both a freelance basis and as part of an agency I totally agree with your summary of the best and worst types of clients. When dealing with difficult clients who always demand more work for no extra cost I think it’s important that we don’t fall into the trap of spending more time on those who ‘shout the loudest’ to the detriment of better clients who understand how digital marketing works and have realistic expectations for their campaigns.

    I couldn’t agree more that agencies should consciously choose to only work with clients who are a right fit for them and who have the right attitude as we have all probably experienced clients who make you wonder why you bother and conversely when you have a good relationship with them and achieve their goals through working together it’s a great feeling.

  3. Yeah, I hear you. Gary Halbert, now deceased US copywriter used to go on stage at internet marketing conferences where attendees paid maybe 5k a head wearing a t-shirt that said “clients suck.” Seems to be a common theme ;-)

Comments are closed.