Creative Works Brand Strategy Best Practice

Bad brand behavior: 5 things clients need to stop in 2024

By Wes Morton, Founder / CEO

Creativ Strategies


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March 27, 2024 | 8 min read

Stolen ideas, demanding contracts, ghosting. The list of crimes brands are guilty of when dealing with agencies is long, says Wes Morton of Creativ Strategies. It's time for that to change.

A graphic of a red devil face and a crossed out circle

Don't be a devil when it comes to dealing with agencies, says Wes Morton. / Cole de Brito

Everyone in the agency business has a client horror story. The marketing industry has normalized bad brand behavior: insane timelines, mistreatment of staff, vague feedback, finger-pointing, disrespectful vetting, lopsided contracts, stealing ideas.

But an agency-brand relationship should be sacred; an honored pact to work on behalf of a client to make their brand look good and drive the company's growth.

Here are five things agency people hate, which clients should stop doing now.

1. Be respectful with proposals

The process of proposal, procurement, and pitching is fundamentally broken.

I've spent three weeks before with a team of ten people working on a big pitch for a well-known auto brand. The proposal required us to fill out forms, provide decks of materials and case studies, attend multiple meetings, and accept an obscure evaluation method. Our agency group was shortlisted, pitched our campaign – and was promptly ghosted. Weeks of work. Teams of people. Not even a thank you note.

As an independent, I once approached a client cold with a great idea to launch a campaign in partnership with a major Hollywood movie release. To win the business, I worked for months, emailing and meeting with stakeholders to finally approve the budget I proposed, $500,000. A few weeks after submission, I discovered that my deck, elements, tactics, outline, and even budget numbers had been repackaged in an open request for proposals (RFP) for other agencies.

Today, winning a pitch usually requires creating a campaign for free. Clients ask for the entire recipe and then feel they're free to use the ideas they like best. Proposals have become thinly veiled opportunities for brands to extract work from agencies without paying.

Proposals should be short, to the point, tease threads of ideas, and serve as a chemistry check between client and agency. Stop gaming the proposal process for free ideas.

2. Don't demand egregious contract terms

While I was at Dentsu, a consumer packaged goods (CPG) client demanded 180-day payment terms to service their business. That meant the agency had to front the salaries of the 80+ staffed employees for half a year before the client reimbursed them. Keurig Dr. Pepper one-upped them when their payment terms leaked, requiring agencies to forgo payment for 365 days.

In legal terms, more and more clients are refusing to indemnify their agencies for any lawsuits brought by consumers for their advertising. That means if a client approves of work, tells you to run it, and gets sued, they can pass the legal buck as well.

Brands also put downward pressure on contract terms and agency fees by conducting more frequent ‘agency reviews.’ These circus acts are designed to pressure agencies into reducing their fees and to work for less.

Agencies will often cave to unfair terms because large books of business are too hard to pass up. Agency leadership should have a little self-respect and say no. Always avoid clients who take agency work for granted.

3. Be organized when dealing with agencies

Agencies should fit a client like a glove. If the glove doesn’t fit, it’s sometimes because the brand can’t figure out where their hand starts.

Disorganized, indecisive clients are the worst. Agency folks are great at taking direction. We’re in the service business. We can even figure out what you want sometimes, but we need a little help to get there.

Years ago, a CPG brand took so long to decide which direction to go in that two concurrent campaigns ended up in circulation. Two totally discordant, haphazard, poorly executed campaigns, put together by several agencies – that the brand should have been managing.

I couldn’t keep track of who was in charge of what. It sucked. And the brand manager was fired.

4. Bureaucracy can kill good ideas

No committee has ever produced amazing creative work. The bigger the group of people, the larger the consensus necessary, the more approvals needed, and the less responsibility and proximity anyone feels to the final work. But that’s the point. Clients that create or give feedback by committee don’t want to stick out their neck.

This is because bureaucratic client organizations do not empower their own employees to make decisions. These muddled, committee-made campaigns produce bland work that lands with consumers like a wet napkin.

Without a singular vision, creativity delivers amorphous duds. Clients should have one or two employees with good taste who can greenlight marketing decisions. If the campaigns do well or poorly, you know who to point the finger at.

5. Give credit to the agency

To understand if an agency is the right fit, brands will look at their client roster and body of work. The work is the proof.

As professional services businesses, agencies are only as good as their last campaign. Brands that refuse to credit their agency partners actively harm their ability to win new business.

Clients should want to show off their best and brightest work because ultimately they win too. Great work isn’t done in a vacuum. It’s done in service to a mission that both client and agency understand, know, and respect.

Great agencies make their clients money. Clients should return the favor and give credit where credit is due. It’s high time that clients acknowledged that it's brands and agencies together that win business.

Creative Works Brand Strategy Best Practice

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Creativ Strategies

Creativ Strategies is a full-service marketing consultancy and studio for media, entertainment, and tech brands. Challenges welcome.

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