Client/Agency Relationships:

The Good, The Bad, And The Truly Terrifying

Here at Portent, we realize that every once in awhile business relationships don't go as planned. In fact, sometimes things get so bad they become utterly terrifying. Why does this happen? And more importantly, what can agencies and clients do to prevent it?

Over the summer we surveyed both client and agency representatives, to help us uncover the reasons why these relationships break down, and to gain valuable insights on how agencies and brands can work better together. We learned a lot, and we heard some pretty scary horror stories in the process.

That's Some Scary Stuff!

In addition to some powerful feedback from both clients and agencies about what can make (or break) a successful partnership, we also heard some pretty frightening stories about these relationships going sideways. Here are the top ten that certainly sent chills down our digital marketing spines!

  1. An Expensive Mistake
  2. Does Not Compute
  3. Miscellaneous Expenses
  4. Not Easy Being Green
  5. A Ghastly Confession
  6. The Rainmaker
  7. Too Good To Be True
  8. Comprehensive Services
  9. New URL, Who Dis?
  10. The False Start

Horror Stories

An Expensive Mistake

"Our agency spent tens of thousands of dollars on one social media post. It was an error on their part, and it meant they weren’t regularly monitoring the ad campaign. And since they had wrapped it into a total campaign invoice, we didn’t find out about the post until one year later – looking into historical campaigns in our ads manager."

Horror Stories

Does Not Compute

"A mid-stage startup client was unable to implement standard SEO recommendations, claiming their tech infrastructure couldn't handle it. To explain, they showed us their server room; a bunch of old, yellowing desktop servers sitting on the floor and piled atop each other. This company had to conserve every CPU cycle it could or all would collapse."

Horror Stories

Miscellaneous Expenses

"The worst client we've ever had forced us to buy their wife a gift every time they wanted to renew their contract with us."

Horror Stories

Not Easy Being Green

"One time I jumped on a call with a client--my first time speaking with him--only to have him do a Kermit The Frog impression for two minutes."

Horror Stories

A Ghastly Confession

"Two months into a contract the client communicated that they took out a loan to pay for my SEO services and they weren't getting enough paying leads coming in to make payments on the loan. The client confessed that they had to dip into their child's college fund to make loan payments."

Horror Stories

The Rainmaker

"I had a man cry during a client discovery session."

Horror Stories

Too Good To Be True

"Geo-fencing was the hot new thing, and a digital marketing agency promised me insane targeting parameters around our target demographic. After the campaign kicked off, we were getting tons of clicks but no conversions. A deep dive into the campaign revealed that the 99% of the clicks were from online bots. Our campaign was ruined."

Horror Stories

Comprehensive Services

"A client hired me to build his personal brand. He insisted that I come into his office to work with him, which I did. However, he never came into the office himself. Three weeks later I found out that he wanted me in the office because he thought since he was paying me, I was also going to act as his receptionist."

Horror Stories

New URL, Who Dis?

"A client's IT department took it upon themselves to decide that everyone should go to the WWW version of the site. They did this over a weekend without telling anyone and just had every URL that wasn't WWW give a 404 and redirect to the homepage."

Horror Stories

The False Start

"A semi-pro football team hired us for comprehensive advertising and marketing. Because of tight deadlines, we started work before first payment. Then things got weird: foot dragging, stories of bank problems, and then the president said he was fired by the board and they refused to follow through on the contract. Except it was all a lie; the work was done by someone else."

What The Data Says

We gathered some pretty interesting data about how clients and agencies do business. Below are some of the more compelling statistics we discovered.

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Why Hire an Agency?

Staffing? Resources? Cost? When asked why clients typically hire agencies:


are looking for the expertise and resources they provide

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Why Fire an Agency?

Clients may be using budget and money objections as a way to let agencies down easy when they're really frustrated by misaligned expectations and poor communication:


of clients say they fire agencies for poor communication and/or expectations not met


of agencies believe they were fired because they were too expensive, or that clients were facing budget cuts

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B2B vs. B2C

Agencies are being hired more often for B2B support than B2C:

36% B2B

21% B2C

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What services are outsourced?

Clients are more often keeping email marketing and PR in-house, but four services are in high demand:

SEO tombstone


Content tombstone


Social tombstone


PPC tombstone


Keys To A Great Client/Agency Relationship

You spoke. We listened. And based on what we learned, we've put together a guide that outlines five essential building blocks of a client/agency relationship and some best practices that everyone should follow to guarantee success.

Download the Guide
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Keys To A Great Client/Agency Relationship

Expectations can't be met if they aren't understood. Whether you are a company that has just hired a digital marketing agency for the first time, or you're an experienced agency embarking on a new project with a repeat client, it is important that everyone involved is on the same page: about project goals, expected outcomes, and how you are going to get there.

In this guide, we have identified five building blocks of a client/agency relationship. We've also provided some best practices from both perspectives to help ensure your next project delivers a positive experience, successful results, and you avoid becoming the next digital marketing horror story.

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Goals and KPIs

Overall goals. Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). Targets. Establishing what you want to achieve and clear ways to measure progress must come before anything else.


  • Identifying your KPIs is a good start, but you also need to set targets to make them meaningful. Specific KPI targets help avoid confusion, or worse, ambiguity.
  • Establish an agreed-upon time frame for your goals. How long will you have to prove success? Let your agency know, so they can build a strategy to achieve results within those parameters.
  • In addition to establishing your immediate desired outcomes, share your big-picture goals and KPIs with your agency. The more information they have about how this project fits into your larger strategy, the more successful they will be.


  • Do not underestimate the discovery process! Making sure you understand where your client is coming from helps you better determine a true goal, as opposed to what the client might think they need.
  • Do your competitor research. Make sure your client understands who they are actually competing with, not who they assume they are competing with. And help align goals and KPIs accordingly.
  • Tell clients when their goals are unrealistic. Working toward outcomes that aren't feasible leads to frustration and sets everyone up for failure.
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Budget and Scope

No matter how large or small a project is, the budget is always a sensitive topic. But it's something that has to be discussed right off the bat.


  • Come to the agency with a clear understanding of what you want, and what services you need.
  • Have some goals in mind to help articulate what you're trying to achieve.
  • Establish a preliminary budget., even if it's a ballpark; this provides a realistic starting point for negotiating scope of work. It also allows your agency to dial in their recommendations to something attainable within your budget parameters.


  • Be prepared to lead with a budget recommendation. If a client hasn't worked with a digital marketing agency before, or if they aren't used to managing a budget like this, they might need some help.
  • Make sure that your project's budget and scope of work are directly related to your client's engagement goals. This allows you to easily justify resource allocation, and provides tangible results to measure against.
  • Confirm that you have an accurate understanding of your client's resources and capabilities, and a clear expectation of the division of labor. Knowing who will be responsible for different components of a project will help form a more realistic budget.
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Time and Resources

One of the biggest sticking points between agencies and clients is a misunderstanding of the amount of time a project will take, and the resources needed (and available) to complete it.


  • Be realistic about your company's internal bandwidth available for things like client input, review periods, turnaround times, etc.
  • Be sure to include the appropriate stakeholders in conversations that would benefit from their expertise, and make sure you have designated staff on the project that has power over decision-making and implementation.
  • Establish priorities early. Being clear about what is time-sensitive and what can wait will help your agency understand what is important to you, and prioritize their work accordingly.


  • Do not overcommit or set unrealistic deadlines for your work; establish feasible turnaround times for both you and your client.
  • Ensure you have identified the appropriate client resources for decision-making, implementation, etc. to streamline the process.
  • It's key to walk clients through what your workflow will be like, so they know what to expect, and when.
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It's not just about how often you communicate, but WHAT you communicate as well.


  • Start your project with a unified direction and vision (e.g., understanding internal politics, capabilities, ownerships, etc.) This guarantees that your company's stakeholders are on the same page about things from the get-go.
  • Establish your internal points-of-contact for the agency as soon as possible. Understanding roles and responsibilities will streamline communication efforts between everyone.
  • Confirm your process and deliverable expectations with your agency upfront; this helps avoid frustration and future scope creep.


  • Prioritize face time! In-person meetings build rapport and help avoid miscommunication, (the misunderstood tone of an email, anyone?) And if being in the same location is tricky, opt for a video conference over a lengthy email chain.
  • Learn which deliverable and reporting formats work best for the brand and do your best to mirror them. It's all about speaking your client's language!
  • Celebrate wins, even if they are just milestones toward the larger goal. Showing impact and giving credit boosts engagement and builds client loyalty.
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Open and honest conversations and feedback are vital parts of a successful business relationship. No ifs, ands, or buts.


  • Be upfront about your concerns, or any past horror stories that have still got you shaking. When your agency knows about any negative experiences you've had, they can help mitigate those fears.
  • If you disagree with a suggested change that you don't want to implement, tell your agency, and why. Don't leave them guessing. And if you don't understand a recommendation, ask for more information on how it will affect your goals and budget.
  • Sometimes, internal goals change. If that happens, make sure your agency is aware of the shift, so they can adapt their time and strategy appropriately.


  • When suggesting changes for your client to implement, be forthcoming with the "business impact" or value proposition, and how the work will create change in their marketing channels or user experience to help them toward their goals. What might seem obvious to you, might not be to them.
  • If mistakes are made, acknowledge them quickly. And regardless of who is responsible, come with a solution, or a plan to find the solution.
  • Remember that sometimes your clients won't, or can't, be transparent. Keep your eyes and ears open for indicators of bigger issues that might potentially impact the project.
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Whether you work for an agency or you represent a client looking to hire a digital marketing team, keep these five building blocks in mind when you begin your next project. Following these best practices will go a long way in setting goals, budgets, and expectations, and establish open and honest lines of communication between all stakeholders.

Avoid becoming a digital marketing horror story; focus on building a mutually-beneficial partnership that sets everyone up for success, and builds positive relationships that last. And leave the scary stuff to the movies.