Five secrets to a successful client-agency partnership

marketing02-0620916HAVING worked for many years with a number of clients from diverse fields, such as fashion, retail, food, consumer goods, travel, hospitality, transportation, and even health and advocacy, I think I have gained quite a bit of experience in making a partnership successful between clients and their agency. I believe that sustaining a great relationship with our clients allows us public-relation (PR) professionals to contribute our best work, as well as avoid any work-related tensions and misunderstanding.

In the simplest terms, let me outline some of the ways that agency people can work toward a good working relationship, as well as some quick notes on how clients can also do their part.

Always be honest with your clients right from the start.

I have discovered that clients appreciate it when we are honest and transparent with them right from the beginning, especially with regard to costs and agreements (as these are the things we discuss first). I recommend always having a signed agreement before you start working.

Remember that clients are always working with a budget, so be sure to spell out all the possible costs that you might encounter in the course of implementing your proposed PR campaign. Show them that you are not out to spend their money unnecessarily, but have their best interests at heart. If you see that their product may not be available everywhere yet, don’t recommend a full-blown PR campaign for them. If you must tell them things they don’t want to hear—perhaps, they don’t need PR, yet, because they have to fix basic problems with their product—then tell it like it is. You will be surprised how impressed they will be when they realize that you are not just after their budget, but you truly want to help them.

• To the client: Learn how to appreciate and give positive remarks to the agency whenever you see that they’re doing something good for you. Good work is the least you can expect from them, but it also doesn’t cost you anything if you give them some encouragement, kindness, appreciation and, yes, honesty.

Build a relationship on mutual trust and confidence.

Don’t hesitate to tell clients when you disagree with them but know when to give in. Trust and confidence are normally built over time and they must be earned from both sides. When you start working with a client, the natural process is for them to test your mettle or your reliability first. Be patient. Remember: You must earn that trust with your good performance and track record.

Based on my personal experience, clients begin to trust you when you clearly communicate your point of view to them and explain why you feel strongly about it. The fact is, clients are not always right, and it’s our job to tell them when they are wrong. Many agencies simply say “yes” to client assignments they know won’t work or agree to goals that have nothing to do with the plans. The agency must be able to tell clients what will and will not work, and maintain their position on certain issues. Whether you will prove yourself to be right in the end is something you must be prepared to accept and defend.

Now here’s the thing: If after giving them all the solid reasons why you disagree with them and they still insist on doing it their way, then you must give in—they do have the final word, not you. What’s important is that you warned them properly, especially about the worst possible scenarios that could happen and how these could affect your plan. I also recommend that you put all your agreements in writing, so that it is clear you are not to blame for whatever negative outcome happens and that it was the client’s choice or approval which was followed, despite the agency’s recommendation.

• To the client: It will help if you listen to your agency’s recommendation, but you must decide based on your own judgment. You must also give agency some consideration for mistakes in the beginning, while they are still finding the right formula on how to best work with you. It will definitely help them if, at the start, you already tell them what you don’t like or what to avoid. In other words, give them the ground rules to avoid possible misunderstanding.

Communicate and meet with your clients regularly and keep them updated on every development pertaining to their business.

I always liken a client-agency relationship to a “romantic” relationship between two partners, which should always be given sufficient time, nurturing and attention for it to succeed as a relationship. Frequent interaction is a must between client and agency so that both parties can better understand each other’s problems or situation. Call or meet them regularly, instead of just e-mailing them all the time, so that you don’t lose the personal touch; it is important to interact with them regularly so they feel your presence. 

Get to know your client’s needs more deeply by studying their brand, products and business well. If you come across some important news or information that you think will be relevant to them, share it with them immediately to show your concern and involvement. Aside from the daily routine of attending to their business, you should be a constant source of news, trends and all interesting developments in the industry to your client.

Offer your help in other ways that may not only be limited to PR advice. For example, if you know they’re looking for a consultant in an area where you may have connections, offer to help. Even if they’re looking for a designer or a coordinator for their upcoming wedding, or if you hear of a good travel deal that your travel-crazy client might like, give them your suggestions. That extra assistance when least expected will always be appreciated and will show them that you are not only fulfilling their most basic corporate or official needs, but you are also willing to go beyond expectations. This also leads to trust and confidence in each other.

• To the client: While agencies are always at the servicing end of the relationship, it always helps if the client respects the agency’s time and efforts. While agency should come to meetings on time, the client should also make sure that all meetings are productive, and start and end on time. Some clients cancel meetings on the spot when the agency arrives, or always expect them to wait or adjust to their time. Please do not assume that the agency has no other meetings (except if you have previously booked them for the whole day). Respect for each other’s time is important.

Be consistent with delivering excellent services and hold a regular review and evaluation of your work.

At the end of every project or, perhaps, for the major projects that you and the client worked on together, it would be ideal if you could do a post-mortem or an evaluation of the project so that both of you can learn from what transpired. What were the good points? What needs improvement? What should we do to avoid similar mistakes in the future? This tells your client that you sincerely want to put in good work and that you don’t mind being evaluated.

• To the client: Again, if the agency did some good work worth mentioning, please be generous with praise or pats on the shoulder. If they did not perform as expected, point out where they can improve. Guide them by telling them exactly what you liked and what you feel needs more work. Give them a report card with “grades” that may motivate them to perform better.

Assess your relationship with the client early enough and decide to succeed or to quit.

Finally, if you meet very difficult clients who may be impossible to work with, assess the situation early. If you are brave enough to take on the challenge of winning them over, then be prepared to do an uphill climb of winning their trust and confidence.

If not, then you should withdraw from the relationship early enough so you don’t take the risk of worsening what you already know may not be mutually beneficial for both of you.

Whatever you decide, you must stick to it.

• To the client: After going through a rigorous process of choosing your agency, please try to reach a reasonable working arrangement with them by setting the rules early and by helping them get to know you and your business better. Brief them thoroughly and work out a road map for them to follow as you approve their moves regularly. That way, you can help the agency achieve a successful joint partnership that will benefit both of you in the long run.

PR Matters is a roundtable column by members of the local chapter of the UK-based International Public Relations Association, the world’s premiere association for senior communications professionals around the world. Joy Lumawig-Buensalido is the president and CEO of Buensalido & Associates Public Relations.

PR Matters is devoting a special column each month to answer our readers’ questions about public relations. Please send your questions or comments to


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