Latest insights on client:agency relationships

03 Sep 2018

This spring, AAR undertook a qualitative research project with brand owners and agency leaders exploring the concepts of Trust and Goodwill in client: agency relationships, along with the future role of Account Management.

We were curious as to whether trust is earned over time or is a default position at the start of a relationship? Whether trust and expectation levels vary depending on the role and remit of the agency? Is trust a virtual contract? How is it regained once lost? We also asked questions of marketers and agency leaders around the future of account management. Is the function still needed or on the road to extinction? How do they think it needs to change? What impact will those changes have on both clients and agencies? Is the label the wrong one in today’s world? What qualities make a great account director from a client’s perspective? Here’s a summary of our findings.


  • Clients expect Creative agencies to be providers of ‘top table insights’. They don’t automatically expect the same from their Media agencies. Is this capability or opportunity or trust?
  • All clients want to be ‘relentlessly’ challenged and always supported, in equal measure. That’s a real dilemma for agencies and internal teams, and a real skill to recognise where the line is and get the balance right. We believe clients need to be clearer about where they absolutely do and absolutely don’t want to be challenged.
  • The key ingredients of a good client: agency relationship from both sides is communication: clear, honest, transparent communication and an aligned shared purpose. Easy to say, harder to maintain.
  • The honeymoon period doesn’t exist. While there is much optimism in the beginning, issues that understandably might not have been discussed in the pitch process can quickly emerge which need careful management and expectation setting within both teams.


  • Trust comprises a combination of reliability, ability and truth.
  • Trust is there from the start of a relationship. It’s there when an agency is appointed. It’s assumed and expected, until it’s broken.
  • Trust is threatened when relationships change. On the client side, that can be market forces, strategic and personnel changes. For the agency, that can be changes in the account team, multiple departures, pitching and new clients to service. Interestingly, client talent turnover is felt to be accelerating whilst agency is felt to have stabilised.
  • Trust is not broken by an honest mistake. Especially if the mistake is owned up to! Indeed, an error spotted and made good can strengthen a relationship.
  • Warning signs in a breakdown of trust for clients include calls not being returned, non-attendance at meetings, a rise in cost and a decline in quality of work. Clients will forgive their creative agencies a bit of disorganisation if the work is strong.
  • Those warning signs can be addressed by having open and honest conversations with senior colleagues to resolve known problems, anticipating issues through regular reviews, and swiftly replacing team members when appropriate to do so. Replacing the agency is seen as disruptive, time consuming and very much a last resort.
  • Goodwill is outside of the ‘trust’ contract. It’s seen as ‘money in the bank’ by both clients and agencies which, if built up now, will bring benefits later. An agency shows goodwill by going beyond their remit and over delivering for the client. A client shows goodwill by stretching deadlines and overlooking mistakes. There is an expectation of reciprocity though – does that happen or do one off goodwill acts just set an expectation for next time?


  • Clients have put pressure on account management “value” for years, but agencies have also undermined and underplayed account management and overplayed planning and project management.
  • Account management has evolved in the client’s eyes from the old school long lunches and trips to Wimbledon to wanting smarter, more involved, careful, ‘hungry’ teams who can lead the client’s agenda within the agency (and not vice versa). Building relationships is still critical but needs to be built through work initiatives and successes, not social.
  • Account management must be strategic. It’s all about driving the client’s business, not about hierarchy and layers. Clients don’t have the time and need agencies to reflect their own flatter internal structures.
  • Clients value active listening; a point of view; delivering the best of the agency; keeping it fresh, relevant, leading-edge. There is a real difference between listening (and acting) and hearing (and seemingly doing nothing).
  • Most clients disagree that the account management role is extinct but acknowledge a need to overhaul into more of a business lead role that is effective whatever the job title is.
  • A lead figure with empathy, intelligence and gravitas. They may be or have been a lead planner, a strategy director, a partner, an account director. It’s not about titles. It’s about what they deliver and how. Implicitly multi-skilled and with an informed perspective to draw on.
  • Whilst there’s much debate and, to a degree, a long list of the required characteristics, there was a sense that what was crucial was dynamic leadership (relentlessness, inspiration, bravery, curiosity) AND emotional intelligence (empathy, pragmatism, supportive, collaborative) wrapped with authority, leadership and integrity.
  • With some interesting parallels to other “leads”.
  1. Football Managers – They refresh the team just before it has the chance to become stale
  2. Orchestra Conductors – There are reasons why some conductors are paid the big bucks
  3. Maître D – Any service business that doesn’t have good client service will not exist for long
  • Finally, a sense that one size does not fit all. A flexible approach is needed. And to sum this section up, ‘Bad account management will soon be extinct, great account management is more necessary than ever’.

The research was undertaken by The Nursery, brand comms research agency, during March and April 2018. In depth interviews were carried out with senior clients and agency leaders, who were selected for their marketing experience and industry tenure. We thank them enormously for their time and perspective.

About The Author

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Vicky Gillan

Lead Consultant, Upskill

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