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How challenging the status quo can improve client-agency relationships

by Kim Walker

June 20, 2022

When it comes to opportunities to improve client-agency relationships, the area to focus on is not what the team has in common, but what its differences are.

New figures from Aprais’s global database of more than 24,000 client-agency interactions globally over 20 years show marketing teams need to constantly challenge one another – and themselves – to do better and build stronger relationships.

In fact, the data shows that agencies have an opportunity to improve their ability to challenge by 39 points – the largest gap of any of the seven behaviors studied by Aprais. Marketers, by turn, can improve their performance by 33 points.

Challenge is one of seven behaviors identified by Aprais as characteristic of strong and productive working relationships. The other behaviors are: accountability, communication, functional (ability to do the job), goals, trust and resilience.

By studying the data relating to challenge over a 10-year period, we have discovered that scores for challenge have increased by 11% since 2011. This is the largest increase of all the behaviors over the decade and it suggests that challenge is increasingly in demand, by both clients and their agencies.

How important is challenge?

By ranking all seven behaviors in order of importance we can see how each one influences the overall client-agency relationship. Functional – the ability to actually do the job – generally tops the charts in terms of importance. By turn, challenge is actually the lowest-ranked behavior of clients by their agencies.

But for agencies, challenge drops from the third most-important behavior in lower scoring relationships, to the least important among top scorers. This could mean that some clients don’t actively welcome push-back from their agencies and prefer a master-servant relationship. Our data shows that each behavior, including challenge, plays a vital role in helping build stronger relationships. After all, only strong relationships can survive differences of opinion and come out stronger and more effective.

Challenge – or conflict?

We define challenge as the ability to use initiative to question the status quo, and not allow conflict to go unaddressed. Challenge requires a willingness to initiate and adopt change, to think outside the box and to push back when things aren’t right.

But challenge doesn’t mean conflict. In fact, it means the opposite within team dynamics. If there is a need to challenge a client or team-mate, it needs to be done thoughtfully and with respect. It may be more appropriate to do so in private.

As a simple guiding principle, any challenge should intend a positive outcome, whether that’s an agency challenging the media establishment to innovate, or a marketer who resists the interference of peers and superiors to protect and preserve the spark of creativity.

Our data makes it clear that both marketers and agencies are crying out for more challenging behavior from one another. And it also shows that improvements in challenge scores are possible in just 18 months from the introduction of a formalized, objective and regular evaluation process. The evaluator can act as a mediator, allowing both parties to share their point of view and find a place where they can meet each other for the benefit of the relationship as a whole.

How to improve challenge

For agencies

1.) Show initiative to anticipate the client’s needs, problems and opportunities.

2.) Challenge other communication partners to explore new communication opportunities and business initiatives.

3.) Develop innovative strategies for existing and new contact points.

4.) Display respectful courage to challenge the client with thoroughly researched, well-supported views.

5.) Stay ahead of trends to apply evolving media and technology-driven opportunities to meet consumer habits.

For clients

1.) Be bold. Resist the temptation to take the easy or safe option. Nothing changes if nothing changes, after all.

2.) Stay open-minded and accept innovative ideas from agency partners.

3.) Advocate for, support and if necessary defend the agency team and its ideas internally.

4.) Have the courage to face conflict and manage it proactively.

5.) Accept criticism when briefs are inadequate and make changes and improvements based on feedback.


Agency Business
client-agency relationships
client-agency evaluations