What Do Clients Really Want from Their Agency Partner?

By Jason Swenk on July 19, 2023

Does your agency truly understand your clients’ needs? Are you proactive about learning their business? Is your team constantly looking for new, innovative solutions? What can you do to earn clients’ trust to retain and even upsell them? Today’s guest has been an agency owner for 30 years and knows the business well. He understands which questions to ask to gain clients’ trust and teaches other agency owners to do the same. He’ll reveal what clients are looking for in an agency according to a recent survey.

Drew McLellan owns Agency Management Institute, which serves small to mid-scale agencies helping them grow. He’s on the show sharing insight from a recent survey. Drew’s agency runs an annual survey where agency clients respond to focused questions that give agencies some insight into what they can improve to have a better relationship with them. This year, the survey focused on agencies’ struggles to grow their existing book of business.

In this episode, we’ll discuss:

  • What do clients think about agencies?
  • 4 things you can do to build better relationships with clients.
  • 2 big mistakes you should avoid with clients.


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Sponsors and Resources

E2M Solutions: Today’s episode of the Smart Agency Masterclass is sponsored by E2M Solutions, a web design, and development agency that has provided white-label services for the past 10 years to agencies all over the world. Check out e2msolutions.com/smartagency and get 10% off for the first three months of service.


What Do Clients Think About Their Agency Relationship?

Most agency owners are great when it comes to their services but don’t have the tools to run a business profitably. Having run an agency for thirty years, Drew knows the industry well and now focuses on helping them.

His agency runs an annual research piece called the Agency Edge. In its ten-year history, they’ve mostly talked to people who hire agencies, as was the case this year. The central theme this year was agencies’ struggles to grow their existing book of business.

Clients are taking a longer time to hire agencies, and even once they’ve hired them, they’re slow to assign a first project. So how to get more from the clients you already have? Basically, the gist of the research was to get respondents to reveal how, when, and where they give an agency more money. The results were fascinating — most fell into one of three categories:

  • The ideal agency client: This is the client we all want to have. They want their agency at the table talking about strategy and truly believe they couldn’t run their business as well without the agency.
  • The client looking for a specialist: This was the largest group, accounting for over 45% of the respondents. These are businesses that are pretty happy with their in-house team but are in need of extra sets of hands and depths of expertise in certain areas. They expect the agency to come in and partner with their team. They don’t expect them to get in on big-picture strategy.
  • The client who thinks everything’s too expensive: This was fortunately the smallest group. These clients see agencies as a necessary evil that is too expensive. If they could avoid giving an agency more money, they will choose to do that.

Naturally, the research focused on the first two groups, which are the ones likely to spend more money on agencies.

What Do Clients Really Want From Their Agency?

No matter the different topics they’ve covered over the years, Drew and his team keep finding these same groups. The undesirable clients who see agencies as money-sucking machines are thankfully always the minority.

However, Drew does note this was the first year where that minority came off very strongly about their views. This might be an indication that brand leaders are becoming more leery about partnerships. Moreover, there are now more agencies out there than ever before, which means there are more bad agencies too. With more people out there who don’t know how to market and adequately provide a service, it drowns out the good ones. This creates a rejection of the concept of agency, which leads to businesses trying to avoid that label.

In terms of how to identify these client categories, they’re actually spread across the board. Businesses that want agencies as a partner could be big brands or small startups.

Overall, clients want an agency partner who really tries to understand their business. Basically, they want the agency to care enough about their business to come up with good ideas; even if those ideas don’t necessarily impact the agency. This could be a problem when account people are order takers who don’t understand the clients’ business and don’t know which questions to ask to have insights into their business problems.

4 Things You Can Do to Build Better Relationships With Clients

  1. Learn more. Based on survey responses, agency owners could invest more time and energy learning how their clients do their work. This can mean a number of things like case studies or helping your client do customer research. Yes, this is a huge time investment on the agency’s part. However, failing in-depth understanding relegates you to an order-taker role by your own doing.
  2. Meet your clients. Even if you’re a virtual agency you should get out there and meet your clients in person, especially in the onboarding process. There’s still no substitute for face time in this post-pandemic era with so many ways to connect virtually. It’s hard to develop more than surface-level trust when you’ve never even been in the same room as that person.
  3. Ask more questions. Drew believes agency owners tend to stop themselves from asking questions. They assume the client knows their business well, so if they say they want an app or a tradeshow booth, all too often the answer is “Okay, we’ll do that for you”. It’s okay to at least ask simple questions like: “Why?” or “Is there a better way to spend that budget?” Just dig a bit into the reasons behind what they’re asking. More than half the time they need something, but are wrong about what that something is.
  4. Be proactive. Clients want their agencies to be proactive and not wait around for them to place an order. Many agencies shy away from this because it feels pushy; however, the message that came across loud and clear is that clients will give agencies more money when agencies give them a good reason to spend more money.

2 Big Mistakes Some Agencies Make with Clients

Out of all the groups, it was especially important for the second one – clients looking for a specialist –to find an agency that respects their team. It’s important to understand the ecosystem of how the business works, who’s on the team, and where you can lend a hand. Overall, the message was “don’t overstep your bounds”.

Clients were clear about how much they dislike agencies that come in and try to prove they’re smarter than the internal team. Collaboration will get you better results because these companies think highly of their internal team. This also goes for getting into a meeting and immediately starting to use technical terminology. You obviously want clients to think you’re smart but you won’t get far by making them feel dumb.

Big Takeaways: More Time with Agency Owners and Being Assertive

Still focusing on the first two groups, it’s important to mention these clients wanted more interaction with the agency owner. This doesn’t necessarily mean the agency owner will be working on their business on a day-to-day basis. It just means they want the agency owner to check in and know what the team is doing and can be a sounding board for them.

Overall, the big takeaway from the survey is that clients are open to agencies being more assertive in bringing more ideas to clients. They want those ideas and most of them do have more money to give to agencies and are eager to do so if they demonstrate they really understand their business.

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