How to be a Great Client—Part 2: Choosing an Agency

It goes without saying (or bears repeating) that a brand is only as good as the client/agency team behind it. So now let’s turn our attention to the important task of choosing the right agency. Of course, I am very biased in this regard, so take this with as much salt as your palate requires. And all this comes with the caveat that it’s always trial and error to a great extent, and there’s no one single formula for success. That said, there are definitely some patterns worth noting.

Generally speaking, strong agency client/agency combinations are heavily determined by the following key factors:


As with any long-term relationship, you want to feel good chemistry from the get go. You want to be in a room with these people, whether it’s from the client’s perspective or the agency’s. You want to look forward to your interactions and get-togethers, and that’s not something you can fake. In general, a smart client will only work with an agency they sincerely have warm and fuzzy feelings about, and vice versa.

Trust and transparency

It’s important to establish from the beginning a dynamic that is trusted and trusting, where each side, each member, is judiciously transparent. it’s important that your agency knows what’s really going on behind the scenes, and therefore can advise you appropriately, or at least know the context into which they’re showing you creative work. Likewise, it’s important for agencies to give clients some insight into the creative process, and not disappear into a black box after being briefed.

Horizontal vs. vertical approach

Extremely hierarchical relationships where agencies are treated as suppliers, with clients exclusively calling the shots – tend not to produce the best work. A strong agency should have a point of view and feel safe to express it on behalf of the best interests of the client’s business. A more horizontal, collegial approach tends to lend itself to problem-solving and enhanced creativity much more readily. And it’s simply more fun.

Similar appetite for risk and change

A good agency is inherently built to challenge the status quo and recommend new approaches. Client teams are often a bit less risk-tolerant by nature, and have responsibilities for managing business accountably. This is completely natural, but when there’s too wide a gap between the agency’s and the client’s appetite for risk and change, problems can arise. Make sure you’re honest and clear about these tendencies before signing on the dotted line.

Alignment between expectations and budget

This applies to both clients and agencies. It’s crucial to line up one’s expectations and ambitions, with the budget and timeframes one has to work within. You cannot fly to the moon on a half tank, you cannot ask for a fully-loaded Lexus on a Honda Civic budget. While creativity can help to close the gap between limited budgets and great expectations, at a certain point, one must still allocate sufficient budget, or adjust one’s expectations.

Sustained senior-level interest

Very often, in a pitch situation, you’ll see the senior execs of an agency, wearing their Sunday best and flashing their best Mad Man smiles. And then once they’ve won your business, they disappear and leave only an inexperienced team in their wake. It’s important to gauge from the get to how genuinely passionate the senior management is about your account, because that will have a material effect on their staffing and resource decisions, which have a direct impact on the quality of the creative work you receive.

If you have most or all of the above, then you can be very confident that this will be a fruitful and exciting relationship, one that will truly “take you places” you want to go.