Is the Client-Agency Relationship Broken? Why The Client is Not Always Right

There are times when the client-agency relationship feels broken and deadlocked.

  • The client sees a challenge, writes a brief, and invites agencies to bid to work with them. Agencies receive it and respond, hoping to be selected.
  • The client sends the brief, and the agency executes it.
  • The client gives the feedback, and the agency implements it.
  • The client approves the work, and the agency is paid.

Overall, a lot of the relationship can become one in which the client pays the bills (and calls the shots) and the agency does the work. Adjusting to the desires, feedback, and views of the client.

Whichever of our two hats Nendo is working under - as a Kenyan market and consumer research agency or as a digital and social media marketing and advertising agency, there tends to be a power dynamic that can be hard to unlock. And professional services and adages like 'the client is always right' make this power dynamic even more difficult. I've even caught myself saying often this year (to clients) that we 'serve at the pleasure of the client' (akin to serving at the pleasure of the King or Queen in monarchies). It is time I confess that I've long had a problem with this.

At Nendo, we try our best to find a 'third way' through this dilemma. A third way that breaks through the "I'm right and you're wrong" approach that can plague conversations with clients.

On one hand, it can be true for the client to say this to the agency. Or for the agency to push back on the client when defending their work. It becomes harder to distinguish True North when there is a vested interest - the organisation that is paying. One of Nendo's trend predictions from before the pandemic was that there would be growth with 'in-sourcing' where clients hire creative or research talent and bring it in-house. In Kenya, this came to pass with many firms hiring designers, copywriters, and dynamic small teams to either compete with their agencies or replace them altogether.

Agency Whisperer and Savant Blair Enns said that for a client, 'you can't read the label from inside the jar.' You need external eyes, fresh perspectives, and unbiased experience to solve problems and challenges. Or, as Rich Mulholland put it years ago, 'When smart people are faced with an innovation-based problem, it isn't knowledge holding them back, it is perspective.' This should be the true winner - the person pursuing perspective and where it comes from - our customer. The person we all are both serving.

One of my favourite quotes, which I often show to clients in presentations to challenge them, comes from Marketing Professor and Provocateur Mark Ritson.

His first law of marketing is that you are not the market. You as the client who engages Nendo as a research firm or, a marketing agency, or both. He goes on to say, "You are an urban, professional, well-paid media executive. Everything you think and do is from a highly unrepresentative n of 1."

More specifically, to quote him:

So, the great catch of marketing is that the minute you start getting paid to work for a company, product, or service, you can never see that product the way the customer sees it. The first law of marketing, if you will, is to recognize that and realize that you will never see that product the way the customer sees it again.
Mark Ritson

This is one of the reasons that I baulk when clients tell me (even though on rare occasions it is true) that "I don't think that will work for my audience." This can be true, of course. But, over time, I've come to realise that it can also come from a place of a client's innate pride or even a blind spot of overconfidence. Clients need agencies that will push back and challenge them in service of who they serve - their customers, more than themselves.

This week, for an international nonprofit behaviour-change creative agency pitch for which Nendo bid, we started by (in typical Nendo fashion) tearing the client's brief apart. We took on the greater risk of politely pointing out misjudgements, alternative data sources, and different conclusions we would have arrived at. This comes with risks. A thin-skinned client won't take it so well, and agencies need to handle this type of conflict in a very tactful and delicate way. Some clients like to be challenged in this way, while others need this to be done offline and outside of the spotlight. I try to lead my team to do it respectfully, with questions, and in a charitable way. So what we end up with is an enhanced view of the audience (who we serve and want to reach and influence), the problem (what we're seeking to solve) and, best of all, Nendo's solution and recommendations. In this case, our work tearing the brief apart and putting it back together earned us the client's deep respect and admiration.

We can expect to have productive conflict in service of that client. To use a crude analogy, I find that the best work relationships tend to thrive off this rather than an unhelpful or harmful 'master' and 'slave' dynamic.

The simplest way I know how to put this, even though it reads a bit clunky-ish, is "I don't serve you (the client), I serve your customer/stakeholder/audience." That's who I get paid to truly influence and help change their awareness, perception, and behaviour. My client's client. That's who keeps us both in business and making a difference.

If you'd like to see Nendo answer your business or marketing brief or incorporate AI into your business, brand, project, or enterprise, reach us at, and we'd be glad to connect.

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