Empowering a Client or Destabilizing an Agency?

Let’s talk about an advertiser who will spend several million dollars advertising online this year and is working with an agency.  Imagine that the agency is aggressive with their planning and they are good negotiators.  I know, it already sounds like an unusual agency, but its my example.  It’s not a small firm, but also not one of the mega-agencies.  These guys really care about their clients’ performance and they work hard at what they do. 


How does an agency draw the line and not fall prey to being at the beck-and-call of their clients?  Well they don’t.  Bottom line, big clients levy big demands.  But where does the line get drawn?  If every decision ultimately gets passed on to the client, it will seem as if the agency is afraid to step up and drive the relationship.  If the agency is willing to exercise their skills and expertise, take some calculated risks and accept responsibility for potential mistakes, they may not end up being emasculated by the relationship or end up with a client that drives all of the decisions.  Is this realistic?


But where does that line get drawn?  What about when an agency lets an overpowering client impact decisions about how the agency should operate?  This is precarious to me.  A client that knows what it wants is a good client to work with, it makes it possible to get somewhere in terms of ideas and results.  But an agency should know how they operate best.  They should know what technologies and what tools work best for them and what will make them the most efficient at their jobs.  What I don’t understand is how an agency can become so overpowered by a client that it will begin to yield its operating decisions to the client in addition to campaign decisions.  This is happening out there.  I encounter agencies that yield their ad serving decisions to their clients.  Not because of a price decision, but because of other points of evaluation.  I see agencies that are letting their clients drive decisions about what SEM tools to use and what email marketing systems to go with. 


Agencies that are skilled in online advertising should have preferences and experience in this space and should be making these recommendations to their clients.  No, maybe recommendations is too soft a word.   I am not speaking as a vendor who is frustrated with agencies that yield their ad serving decisions to their clients.  Believe me, its frustrating.  I am speaking as someone who believes that technical expertise lies in the hands of the person who uses it.  A client does not gain the insight and experience of SEM like an agency does.  A client does not gain the optimization capacity of ad serving like an agency does.  The agencies are the people who should become proficient with these tools and who should be developing preferences.  I don’t believe that an agency should yield the decision to its client as to how the agency should manage the operation.  I think the agency should reserve that decision for itself. 

To me it should still be about results.  There are many agencies out there that do what I am describing.  They are a “DoubleClick Shop,” an “ExactTarget Shop,” a “WebTrends Shop” etc.  And that has its advantages and disadvantages.  Technical expertise on a platform means an agency offers a client aptitude to optimize ROI throughout a campaign.  If a client pushes new technology on an agency, time is spent learning how to become efficient on the new tool set.  Interesting.  The agency spends the client’s money building a proficiency during a campaign or the client leverages an existing proficiency.  Client’s choice or agency’s choice?  This may all seem like common sense.  But there are a lot of agencies out there that lose sight of control over their operation and allow their dominating clients to make these decisions for them.  And in the end, the agency loses control, the client loses performance and then the agency loses the client.

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