Turning Good Relationships into Great Ones

9 years, 11 months ago


The relationship between client and agency is notoriously hard to get right and harder still to sustain. Suki Thompson offers advice on avoiding the pitfalls and delivering what clients crave.

There is nothing quite like a pitch to get everyone performing at their absolute best (or worst). But what is it that clients look for in agencies, and how can both sides make the relationship work, afterwards?

If pitches are all about excitement, showmanship, big ideas and winning, the ongoing relationship is much more about action, proactivity, consistency, nurturing and development. Geoff Colvin in his book Talent is Overrated suggests that ‘great performance is not reserved for a preordained few... the price of top level achievement is extraordinarily high.... but it is available to everyone.’

I like to evaluate agency and client relationships across five skill sets: People, Thinking, Creative, Process and Financial. So let’s examine the strengths and weaknesses of each one.


In both pitches and ongoing relationships there is one key factor: people. Many of the best PR practitioners in the industry have extraordinary people skills. Smart client contracts name individuals to work on their business and they have the right to pitch the account if that person moves.

It is often said that clients buy teams and indeed at pitch stage it is often difficult to evaluate people separately from the agency itself. A CEO may want a senior agency figurehead to help and advise him personally on media relations, to talk to the board or to discuss strategy, that agency head will be an important factor in winning and keeping the business.

The key person, however, in most relationships is the Senior Account Director, as they talk to the client and importantly ensure that the agency delivers on time and on budget. The best client PR and Corporate Affairs teams are those that integrate well into the rest of the client’s business.

The integration of both teams is vital and how the people talk and respect each other is key. One of the things that can happen when teams work too well and closely together is that they become over familiar and stop behaving politely to each other. A little like sibling rivalry in families, it is all too easy to be rude or sarcastic in jest, when actually that is not appropriate behaviour. Too little team building can hamper business development, too much over familiarity can be equally damaging.


The sharing of strategy is a key part of any relationship and in pitches it is often the element that the client wants to buy. On going strategic development best occurs when the client informs the agency about the strategy beyond PR. Sharing of business strategy and objectives can make the agency feel like a real partner and make sure that they are truly well informed.

Pro activity is also a grizzly issue. Clients often complain that their agency is not proactive enough, which usually means that they are not given ideas and initiatives that seem to be relevant, affordable and on strategy. Agencies often believe that they are providing lots of ideas that the client never buys. They can all too often get carried away with an idea that is just not relevant or is sold in at the wrong time or to the wrong person. Measuring proactivity on a quarterly basis alongside strategy development is often a good way to gauge understanding, real proactivity and buy-in from both sides.


Creativity in PR can mean a huge variety of things from the physical development and execution of a PR idea and campaign, to capitalising on topical current affairs. Certainly ideas that integrate fully with the brand and the work that the other agencies are doing are always best. Recently in the UK the Meerkat campaign for price comparison website comparethemarket.com demonstrated how PR and a creative advertising idea can seamlessly fit together. The idea was propelled by social media, traditional PR and internal communications to really make the most of the campaign.


The saying "the straw that broke the camel’s back" is particularly true where process is concerned. It is often a series of small things that start by just annoying the client but end up getting out of control. Contact reports, media monitoring, delivering work on time, sending documents when they are needed: all make the difference between a good and great relationship.

Financial skills

Transparency is the key to effective financial relationships. Time sheets are a good way to understand how much time is spent on the business but only really work if they are consistent and true. If a client understands the true cost of delivering the campaign including mark up and agency margin then it is much easier to have a sensible conversation about remuneration.

In the long term if a client doesn’t pay a fair fee they can’t get the best service, but agencies need to be very upfront on how much things cost and pass on external costs in a transparent way.

Great performance is more valuable than ever, yet all too often agencies and clients are quick to invest money in pitches but not in their ongoing relationships. So as the market continues to be a tough one in 2010, my suggestion is work as hard if not harder on retaining and building the relationships that you have, rather than going for the glory of pitching and possibly losing business in the process.

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The Author

Suki Thompson

Suki Thompson is Managing Partner of Oystercatchers – marketing agency search, evaluation and pitch consultants in the UK and globally.

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