Rethinking the client-agency relationship


By Joseph Liu, Speaker · Career Consultant · Podcast Host · Writer

July 17, 2013 | 5 min read

During my eight years as a client-side brand marketer on various consumer brands in the US and UK, I’ve managed marketing projects with over 20 marketing agencies. Retained and non-retained. Big and small. US and UK-based. Start-up and established. External and internal. Global and local.

silhouette of patterns

/ Photo by travelnow.or.crylater on Unsplash

Whether it’s briefing the agency, running a pitch process, or managing a creative project, client-side marketers all have their own styles when it comes to managing the client/agency relationship. I’ve witnessed a wide range of approaches across different teams, both those I’ve managed and those I’ve observed. Candidly, sometimes we’re good at it, sometimes we’re not. The client-agency partnership is central to the work we all do as marketers, one that requires thoughtful management, transparency, and effective ways of working that all parties respect.

While I’m not going to sit here and purport there’s only one right way to manage an agency, I’ve noticed that certain ways of working motivate agency teams whilst others demotivate them. Certain client attitudes foster trust whilst others erode it. Certain approaches to managing the creative development process result in focused, breakthrough campaigns whilst others result in confused, watered-down creative. And in each of these scenarios, the strength of the client-agency relationship is pivotal to the final quality of creative work and ultimately, business results.

I’m passionate about this topic because I’ve been fortunate enough to work with many inspiring agencies over the years with teams that have taught me a tremendous amount, humbled me with their creative output, and often come up with innovative solutions to creative challenges that never even crossed my mind. As a client, I’ll admit I’m sometimes guilty of thinking quite linearly, of presuming I have the answers as the 'brand-owner', but admittedly, there have been plenty of times my agency partners have proven me wrong.

I now approach the client-agency relationship in a different manner. I do not draw a solid line between the client team and the agency team, but instead approach work as a client/agency team, jointly owning, jointly presenting, and jointly holding accountability for the outcomes.

I’ve had managers tell me the only way to handle agencies is to be tough, to constantly push for more, to squeeze as much work as you can out of them, to dictate exactly what you want. However, I’ve found that to be a very short-sighted view. I fundamentally disagree with that approach. I’ve found that you can be clear about what you want without mandating how it has to be done. That you can disagree without being disagreeable. That you can be clear about your expectations while also being collaborative so that when things do get bumpy, the relationship is strong enough to handle 100 per cent candour in both directions.

In my upcoming series on client-agency management, I’ll share my views on effective ways to manage agencies through the brief, the pitch, and the work. My insights are informed by my own diverse client-agency experiences across five brands and four companies, both large and small, entrepreneurial and traditional, US and UK-based, consumer and B2B, global and local teams, and household goods and luxury food. I’ve also reached out to some agency partners with whom I’ve developed strong relations over the years to solicit their candid views on best practice behaviours with their best clients and pet-peeves related to their worst clients.

In the meantime, whether you’re on the client side or the agency side, I’d welcome your views on what works well and doesn’t work well in your client-agency relationships. What are some of your pet peeves? What do you wish clients knew about how to get the best work out of agencies? And what’s the biggest misconception out there about client-agency management?


With over eight years of client-side brand management & marketing experience at Fortune 500 FMCG and start-up companies in the US & UK, managing brands that include Glad, Liquid-Plumr, Gü Puds, and Häagen-Dazs, Joseph Liu helps professionals & small business owners relaunch their careers with resources to help them navigate career change and more powerfully market their personal brands at He's also the host of the Career Relaunch podcast, featuring inspiring stories of career change.


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