Agency relationships: Keys to a happy marriage

The relationship between client and agency can be long and fruitful, given the correct people and attitude. A panel of chief marketers talks to Maeve Hosea about getting it right.

The panel: (l-r below)

Barnaby Dawe, chief marketing officer at Harper Collins
Javier Diez-Aguirre, director of corporate communications for Ricoh EMEA
Kristof Fahy, chief marketing officer at William Hill
Andy Fennell, chief marketing officer at Diageo
Jeffrey Hayzlett, former chief marketing officer at Kodak and author of Running the Gauntlet
Pete Markey, chief marketing officer at RSA Group


Marketing Week (MW):How do you build a successful relationship with an agency?

Andy Fennell (AF): I work with hundreds of agencies worldwide. At Diageo, we believe you get a disproportionate economic return for brilliant creative work. We cannot operate our business without working with great agency people so we prize those relationships highly. You have to be prepared to take risks to get great creative work. You also need candour and to have a senior decision-maker involved on both sides. The most important criterion is that you want the same thing.

Kristof Fahy (KF): We have a large spectrum of different agencies working for us. I think good working rapport is all about getting under the skin of a business – the more they understand how you work, what you need and the daily job you are trying to do, the deeper and stronger the relationship becomes.

Barnaby Dawe (BD): The client needs to give a clear brief from the outset and the agency needs to keep coming back to that to ensure it is delivering against the client’s strategy. Chemistry is hugely important, as is mutual respect. Without both of these, it’s hard to get through the bumpy patches. In the end, the client needs to trust the agency’s judgement – without that, it is hard to do great work.

Javier Diez-Aguirre (JD-A): From the moment you call an agency and invite it to participate in a pitch, it needs to know that it is part of something transparent and fair. You need to make its people feel part of an extended team because, after all, they are part of your team – they are just based somewhere else.

Pete Markey (PM): It is important to be really clear on the process of your working relationship so there is no ambiguity. The agency has to know exactly what is expected as well as the detail on all the work you output.

Jeffrey Hayzlett (JH): One fundamental thing is the need to build an agency council. During my time at Kodak, it was critical to get the agencies to pull together and deliver one voice as well as the implementation of our strategic brand. To do so, I had my head of branding oversee a governing council of our agency partners that included the lines of business and my regional VPs of marketing, so that we could get everybody in one room with one common goal.

MW: What do you think about consolidating agencies – and is it a key strategy for your brand?

JH: There are a lot of factors that go into it – more than just the management around the brand. Cost and efficiency are certainly critical factors to consider for any CMO. When I served as a CMO, I had more than 3,500 vendors servicing the marketing department. We chose to move that down to a more reasonable number to gain efficiencies and give us greater control of the end product. I would consider this a tactic rather than strategy to deploy.

AF: We have done some consolidation, particularly below-the-line, where we have seen some proliferation of agencies and in Western Europe, where we want money to work harder. However, we don’t believe in consolidation as a primary principle – rather we believe in brilliant work delivering faster growth.

JD-A: We are looking for ways to further improve our operational efficiency and consolidation of some of the specialist agencies we use will be one area we will investigate.

MW: What experiences do you have of working with integrated agencies?

PM: We have an integrated agency with VCCP. It runs our above- and below-the-line activity as well as our brand digital work. That works better for us than having separate agencies. It is much more political and complex getting different agencies to talk to each other – to share and act as one unit.

JD-A: We have gone through some changes at Ricoh – we have gone from having a large in-house marketing team to employing more agencies. With our more out-sourced model, we have more agencies than before. The type of agency is changing as well. In the past, we would use more integrated marketing agencies, whereas now there is more of a tendency for us to use specialists.

BD: It is very difficult to find a truly integrated agency – you get a better flow of ideas from independent agencies working to one brief. The best experience I’ve had of integrated agencies working well together is within the Engine group. It works to one brief but you get experts in every field bringing you independent thinking, which answers to the brief and not the creative director’s ego.

MW: How do you get a pool of agencies to work effectively together?

AF: It works well if, first, the client makes it clear that it is their responsibility to do the orchestration; second, all the agencies involved have the same mission; and third, they understand how they will get paid. If all three of those conditions are in place, it can be a very happy experience.

JH: The biggest issue I’ve experienced is getting everyone to play their positions and to leave politics at the door. It’s only natural that they would want to try to ace out the other agencies – it’s in their nature – but more can be done by collaborating and achieving the client’s goals, rather than putting the agency goals first.

KF: If agencies are clear in their role and clients have been clear with the agency, they tend to be very comfortable working together. Where I have felt frustrations is where agencies are being influenced by senior management to drive up their side of the account, cast doubt on other ideas and generally exhibit Machiavellian behaviour.

BD: The way to do this effectively is through one brief and a briefing session with all agencies that gets them working together and coming back to you with an integrated solution. It is incumbent on the client to be clear about who’s doing what and how they want the process to work.

MW: Relationships don’t always last forever – how do you know when it’s time to more on to a new agency?

KF: One of the agency binds is that people do buy people. When teams change and people move on, it is often a springboard for me to start having a look at other options. Another trigger is when ideas start to get stale, perhaps because the chemistry of the relationship has disappeared.

AF: We believe in long-term partnerships. There is only one reason why we would shift agency and that is if the work is not of a high enough standard over a period of time. Before we got to a position to change, we would investigate every possible cause of this work not being to the highest standard, including if the brief was right and the conditions for the agency to do their work were right.

PM: I had an experience when at One.Tel [the telco then part of Centrica] where myself and a member of my team were writing and designing the press ads ourselves. Trust was gone and we had the view that the agency couldn’t produce work that delivered our business result. When you find yourself doing the agency’s job, you erode the value of why you are using an agency. In my general experience it is not so much the relationship going sour as a case of some of the people involved not being at the top of their game. That drags the whole thing down.

BD: It’s time to change when whatever the agency does is not good enough and there is a total breakdown in communication – when the client dreads seeing what the agency has come back with and the chemistry has gone. When the agency no longer enjoys working on the business.

JD-A: Maybe you have been working with an agency for a while and maybe you have a global deal with this agency but then the balance begins to shift and the agency begins to feel over-empowered. This is an interesting dynamic because one of the roles of a marketer is to be able to reconcile these wonderful and creative ideas an agency will have with the needs of your chief executive. Sometimes things don’t go well and that is just life.

MW: How can you glean the best possible expertise from your agencies on an ongoing basis?

JD-A: We problem-solve with them and they are part of the planning sessions we tend to do each year before submitting big ideas. This keeps them up-to-date and serves as a way to challenge them. We also have evenings – centred around the events that Ricoh sponsors – where agencies can come and meet each other in a relaxed manner.

AF: Agencies are critical to what we do. We believe we will grow faster if we do brilliant creative work and we need agencies for that. If we operate with candour and respect and make sure we are on the same page, working with agencies is among the most exciting things we do as clients.

PM: Make sure you have the right people on both sides. Having point-to-point people is really key. When I worked with VCCP to reshape the team, we shaped it around the structure of my marketing team. It really helped because with some agencies it is quite hard to navigate your way around someone’s business.

BD: It’s like a marriage – you have to work hard at it and ensure you continue to make it fun. You have to fancy each other at the beginning, be all over each other for a while and be prepared to go through some rough patches. As long as you can kiss and make up when you do fall out, you will enjoy a long, happy and fruitful relationship.

Sponsor viewpoint: Quadrangle

alison hand


Alison Hand
Deputy chairman

Relationships take work. They are dynamic, organic things; leave them alone and they tend to falter and fail. Here are five things that, in my experience, make the difference between a great relationship and a merely average one.

1 Mutual attraction

People buy people. It may be a cliché, but it’s true. The beginnings of a new relationship set the tone for how it is likely to develop. Do you like each other? Are you excited about working together? Do you have high hopes for what you’re going to achieve? If not, then you’re in a transaction, not a relationship.

2 Shared expectations

Someone once told me that the most important thing in a marriage is always to be clear about what you expect of each other, because that way there is less chance of disappointment. The same is true in business – making your expectations explicit helps you to maintain that positive connection and means you have the basis for a ‘fair exchange’ between you and your agency. Failure to do this invites friction and frustration.

3 Humility

Everyone likes to be a hero sometimes. But the best work is usually the product of shared effort, which is why humility can be a very powerful thing in a relationship. I’m not talking about subservience – nothing good comes from that. Humility is not a weakness and neither does it signal a lack of confidence. It’s what enables us to learn from others and, ultimately, to make what we do better. Humility creates the conditions for genuine dialogue, real honesty and positive challenges.

4 Integrity

Dr Martin Luther King said: “The time is always right to do the right thing.” He was talking about the fundamental question of civil rights, but the same applies to relationships in business. You’ve got to make the right call, even if it is a hard one. That includes knowing when to bring those difficult issues to the surface. Integrity breeds respect.

5 Standards

We have a saying at Quadrangle: Never satisfied with the satisfactory. Clients have every right to demand that their agencies have very high standards but the reverse should also be true. It’s important to live up to the standards you set because the chances are they are a big part of what attracted you to each other in the first place.


Quadrangle HMRC

‘The Uses of Research’ – Segmentation: HMRC

Desmond Luke

Segmentation changed the culture at HMRC so it became customer-focused and stopped thinking of non-payers of tax as criminals. Find out how the strategy paid off in the third in our video series on The Uses of Research from the exclusive partnership between Marketing Week and Quadrangle.


    Leave a comment


    Discover even more as a subscriber

    This article is available for subscribers only.

    Sign up now for your access-all-areas pass.

    Subscribers get unlimited access to unrivalled coverage of the biggest issues in marketing and world-renowned columnists, alongside carefully curated reports and briefings from Econsultancy. Find out more.

    If you are an existing print subscriber find out how you can get access here.

    Subscribe now

    Got a question?

    Contact us on +44 (0)20 7292 3703 or email

    If you are looking for our Jobs site, please click here

    Subscribers get unlimited access to unrivalled coverage of the biggest issues in marketing and world-renowned columnists, alongside carefully curated reports and briefings from Econsultancy. Find out more.

    If you are an existing print subscriber find out how you can get access here.

    Subscribe now