Why Does the Agency-Client Relationship Fail?

Zac Harris    By under Digital Marketing.

Business owners, CMOs, and senior marketing specialists usually approach SEO agencies for solutions: They want to drive greater volume to their ecommerce site; they want higher search ratings or more. From their end, the idea is that the outside agency will "fix" the problem, which will allow them to grow profits and move on.

But that kind of dynamic is transactional. It implies that there is a special sauce to apply to anything the company may need and because the outside agency is staffed with specialists, all they have to do is throw it into the pot and -- voila! -- the perfect solutions rise to the top.

We know there is much more to the process than that. Agency-client relationships fail when the agency is seen as merely a conduit to success. What makes the relationship succeed is just the opposite of that dynamic: It requires a long-term partnership informed by frequent and clear communication and shared goals.

Failure to Communicate

Before we get into how to improve the relationship between the client and third-party agencies, let's first drill down to what makes those relationships fall apart.

We know it is often extremely difficult to hire an agency or contractor. Once you do, you have no idea what to expect or make the engagement fruitful for both sides. Making things worse is that there's limited advice or information online on actually building out these relationships.

According to a recent Statista survey, there are several reasons that force both sides to split up. The overwhelming factor is communication. If both sides are not talking to one another on a regular basis (at least weekly or more), countless things can go wrong: Failure to share critical information, confusion about prioritizing goals, messaging that becomes unclear. The client and agency need to operate as a team. If that's not happening, nothing they produce together will be right.

Two other factors that lead to breakdowns are a limited understanding of the company strategy and history and poor project management. Both of these result from poor communication. The agency needs time to ask questions, big and small, to be on the client's team. Be prepared to respond to basic inquiries like:

  • Tell me what your company is/does.
  • Tell me about your role at the company.
  • What does your company do better than anyone else?
  • What roadblocks is your company facing?
  • Which channels are working for the company today?
  • Who are your biggest competitors?
  • What are they doing right?
  • Who are some of the critical audiences for your company?
  • What is the value proposition of your product and/or service?
  • How does your company define success?

A full assessment requires transparency and time. Poor project management happens when timelines are not set together. Again, this takes time to thoughtfully create benchmarks that are realistic while moving the client closer to their ultimate goal.

How to Make the Relationship a Success

So how can you get the job done, exceed your expectations, and create a valuable relationship with a third-party agency in the process? Here's a rundown of what you need to know.

You're collaborating, not outsourcing.

The third-party agency you bring into the fold are experts in their field, but they may not know much about what you do day-to-day, the passions that drive your business, or the dynamics in your market. They need to know more about your world, which means they need you to open the door and let them inside.

For the agency to succeed requires collaboration. Teams work together, not just because each member has their own specialty, but when each of those specialists works together for a common goal. That requires a different way of thinking about working with your agency. Think of them as members of your internal team, not strangers you hand off a job to and leave in the dark.

The agency-client relationship can quickly fall apart if there is an unnamed stakeholder behind the curtain, changing the scope of work.  All stakeholders should be involved throughout the process, including the kick-off call to avoid any breakdowns in your relationship.

Share your vision.

Because the agency is new to your world, they will need to hear about your company's vision and the role they will play in getting you there. Are you closing in on your vision or is it still on the horizon? Is your vision only about moving revenue numbers up or is it also about shaping a culture?

Your job is to share your vision in succinct terms, the agency's job is executing that vision and measuring its success. The more you can articulate what your company stands for and how you see the future, the more the agency can become a partner with you to achieving both.

Share your time.

To do both of the above requires time. Remember, you just aren't just throwing work at them and closing the door; you are instead inviting them in and letting them get to know more about you and your business.


Success only happens through a generous time commitment on both sides. Understand that a cadence of frequent check-ins is necessary. Feedback is important. Agency team members won't know they are off track unless you tell them. Don't wait until the final deliverable. Keep the conversation going from the first day to the last. Conversely, make sure you can get your agency on the phone when you need them.

The more you can share your time, the greater opportunity your agency can achieve your vision. After all, a very strong partnership, whether personal or business, requires clear communication and mutual respect. Both are the secret to a lasting success story with minimal chance of divorce.