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Trends + Insights

How to be a good agency client

Marie-Josée Legault
Apr, 2023
8 mins

Tips from a client on how to make the most of your agency partnership 

As an agency, we often ask our clients how we can be better partners, and provide them with proactive, value-added insights and ideas. That’s only natural; after all, they’re the customer, and we want to bring as much value as possible to the table. Still, the very best agency-client relationships are those in which both parties proactively seek ways to contribute and to be a better partner overall. To understand how clients can support their agency, and help lay the foundation for the best possible creative, I sat down with our client Derek Kitching, the Marketing Director at Coghlan’s (a legacy outdoor Canadian brand, known for its iconic camping products). As someone who’s been on both sides of the fence, both within an agency and now as an agency client, I had a hunch that Derek would have some unique insights on the matter. He didn’t disappoint.


How do you develop a brief to ensure you're providing enough background to bring the agency up to speed but focusing on the key elements they need to make the project a success? Any tips and tricks for other marketers?

Having spent time working at an agency as well as being the key contact on the client side, I’ve been part of concept and strategy pitches that fell flat - either the strategy failed to consider a critical barrier, or the creative missed the mark due to not being engaging enough for the target audience. In my experience, the culprit is usually an incomplete brief. Like any effective communication, writing a quality brief takes a lot of thought. When time is a constraint, I've always relied on deploying a framework of thought and structure to ensure I include all the necessary elements to help kick off the project on a solid footing. The framework is relatively simple and should work with any brief template you start with, but there are a few tricks I recommend:

Tip 1: Step Outside your Organization

Whenever I approach a brief, I start by being mindful that being entrenched in a single brand can skew my ability to define the situation thoroughly. For many marketing managers, it's too easy to forget how deeply you understand your organization's constraints, internal dynamics, and business objectives due to being privy to hundreds of emails, hours of meetings with leadership, and solving problems with other departments. What may feel like common knowledge to you may be a critical piece of background information that could shape the project's outcome. That's why I always rely on being empathetic when selecting what context to include, particularly in a 'Background' or 'Overview' section at the start of the brief. It's important to recognize that the person on the receiving end of the brief can only disseminate as much information as you are willing to supply. Therefore, consider what information you would want to receive when being onboarded to a new project after just joining the company, and include that level of detail in the brief.

Tip 2: A Thorough yet Concise 'Background' Section

Save your storytelling prowess for your content marketing initiatives. The 'Background' section of the brief needs to cover a lot of ground to get your agency up to speed, especially since you've stepped out of your headspace to be empathetic and provide a thoughtful summary of the situation. This may run counter-intuitive to the definition of 'brief,' but I've always found value in sharing the project's history or challenges, even if that takes 3-5 paragraphs. I start by using the following framework:

What is the issue or opportunity we are facing?

How consequential or impactful is this issue or opportunity?

Why are we experiencing this issue or opportunity, and how did it present itself?

What have we done about it so far?

Why do we feel we need to change our approach or engage in a new initiative?

I always write this section in paragraph form as it helps details flow freely and encourages the recipients to take the time to read it instead of scanning through it. Short, concise, and context-rich sentences are key. 

Tip 3: Be Introspective

The best way to solve a problem starts with being honest about the issue. I recommend looking inward and noting what challenges or constraints your agency may encounter when working through the solution, even if this can be a painful exercise. If you've attempted to solve the issue on your own and it failed, provide these details. Your role is to bring challenges and constraints to the surface and document them in an unbiased way to make sure the agency can avoid them. 

Tip 4: Frame the Opportunity and Scope, not the Solution

Be honest with your agency about your expectations. If your team seeks conceptualization and a creative solution, don't stifle this creativity by jumping to a solution within the brief. After all, there's a reason you reached out to the agency - to leverage the ideas that can arise when a team of talented professionals collaborates. On the other hand, if you know you only have approval from the leadership team to engage in a tactical project with specific deliverables, be sure to mention that upfront and list these in the brief. 

Tip 5: Gather Supplementary Materials

I always like adding a 'Supporting Resources' section at the end of the brief to provide access to relevant project information quickly. Is there an article you can share that would help frame your situation? Is there a competitor's website that you need to differentiate from? Are there previous campaigns the agency should be aware of? Linking to these materials can make a difference by adding context to the details of your brief and helping bring the agency up to speed.

What process do you take in developing measures of success or objectives for your projects? How do you share these with the agency from an accountability perspective?

In most cases, if you're approaching an agency with a project, you've already identified that you require help to accomplish a business objective. It could be that your internal resources, capacity, skill sets, technology, or experience may be limited to pull it off in the timeframe required. When you distill that down, you understand what you are trying to prioritize: efficiency, quality/performance, cost, or a balance of all three.
If it is a matter of efficiency, I opt to be transparent about deadlines and the acceptable quality level from the start. Sometimes a campaign needs production support to be in the market on time, and you may not be looking for an award-winning concept. Be open about your performance targets, discuss what is realistic, and agree to a work-back schedule.

If it's a matter of quality and performance, you likely have a vision for the quality threshold or outcome but require specialists to craft it. If you're trying to create a high-conversion e-commerce website, outline what you consider success in terms of conversion rate and sales. If you need a lead generation campaign to attract customers to an event, clearly set targets for registrations and your target return-on-ad-spend to make it profitable.

Whatever the project, come prepared with an understanding of where the goalposts are, and include those specifics in the brief to avoid any possible misinterpretations.

How do you approach sharing creative feedback? What do you think of the head, heart, body framework? Any tips and tricks for other marketers?

Creative feedback can be difficult to give and even harder to receive. A lot of emotion can be attached to concepts and creative work, and rightfully so. Whenever I approach sharing creative feedback, I always remind myself that the creative I'm viewing is the output from a team member's hours of thought, deliberation, and meticulous choice. They have sweated the details and poured a lot of effort into the work in front of me, so it's critical to approach feedback from a team perspective. This means delivering feedback tactfully so that everyone in the room feels like they are working together towards the best possible product, not as if they're being criticized or called out.

Clear yet graceful feedback can be challenging to achieve, which is why using an agreed-upon framework to deliver feedback helps create a barrier between the 'person' and the 'product,' ultimately allowing everyone to leave the meeting feeling good. The 'head, heart, and body' framework accomplishes exactly that. It allows the client to slow down their response, revisit the brief, and temper their possible knee-jerk reactions with a more thoughtful evaluation and constructive response. It also helps clients who struggle with articulating their feedback organize their thoughts so that the creative team arrives at a better outcome in fewer rounds of revisions - a win-win for all involved!

Are there any other lessons learned in working on both the agency and the client side that you’d like to share?

Having a basic understanding of the functions of each team, the creative process, and the metrics for success within any marketing-related function is an invaluable skill set. It'll help you articulate your vision, provide more constructive feedback, and build better rapport with the team members at the agency. You don't need to be an expert at web development, digital marketing, copywriting, or graphic design, but at least spend a bit of time understanding and appreciating what it takes for experts within each field to function successfully. If you can understand their process and the inputs required for a successful output, you'll feel like a contributing resource on the team instead of a source of friction.