People first versus client first: how agencies can strike the right balance

Isabella Fenu
By Isabella Fenu | 7 June 2022
Isabella Fenu

Isabella Fenu is a Senior Media Manager at Hatched.

The agency north star has long been to put clients first but with an increased focus on employee wellbeing, the needs of teams is also high on the agenda. So how can agency leaders satisfy both requirements? Hatched’s Isabella Fenu explains.

In recent years, agencies shifted their positioning from service providers to partners. Rather than working for our clients, we work with them.

This better reflects the relationship many agencies have with their clients and how invested we are in the success of their businesses. But it also has another implication: a shift in the expectation that client needs always come first.
In a client/service provider relationship, it’s a one-way street but a partnership suggests a more equal balance.

With employers in all sectors currently thinking more about employee wellbeing and prioritising the needs of their people, the partnership distinction becomes even more important.

But are agencies and their client partners genuinely balancing the needs of both parties? Staff at plenty of agencies would disagree.

Agencies like to say they look after their people but when it comes to the crunch, at many agencies, it’s a case of zip it and deal with it. If the client wants something, you have to deliver it. Especially if they are a high revenue client. Even if it is 5pm on a Friday and you’ve just worked a 60-hour week.

For many agencies, the old-style media way of working persists where the needs of the client trump all else. Staff and their well-being are pushed to the bottom of the priority list with late nights, weekend work and quick turnarounds the norm. But is this sustainable?

In my experience, and having had this discussion with far too many colleagues and friends in the industry, it’s not. They have all suffered the same experience of regularly bending over backwards to please clients, working excessive hours and being unable to take leave when needed. The result was that they all burnt out because their needs were not put first.

This issue is at the heart of the high churn rate in the industry. If agencies don’t genuinely look after their staff, they will end up overworked and burnout. And they will leave. This is bad news for clients as well as the agency bottom line.

If agency staff keep leaving, the relationship with the client will fracture. No client wants to be speaking to a different person every two months having to explain everything about their business over and over again. It’s the definition of frustrating and it has a hugely negative effect on productivity. If I was the client, I’d crack it and take my business elsewhere.

There is, of course, another way that is being championed by smaller agencies. Independent agencies are truly embracing the partnership model and choosing clients that align with their values. They’re setting up the relationship from the get-go and establishing boundaries that consider staff needs. By addressing expectations from the outset, these sorts of issues can be nipped in the bud.

The other piece of the puzzle is agencies practising what they preach around people management. Whether that means truly embracing flexible working hours, offering extra leave so teams can recover from major projects or making people feel appreciated for what they do, even the small things. The reality is that there will always be last-minute requests and changes but this feels like less of a burden when you know the management team is aware of the sacrifices you have made to deliver and acknowledge what you have done.

Clients also have a role to play. Given we are partners, it helps to think about whether you would make similar requests of your internal teams. And it helps to define whether something is a high priority or just something you want turned around quickly. Talk to us, your partners, and ask what is possible and in what sort of time frame. We are people too so let’s show each other respect.

Taking this approach on both the agency and client-side will lead to better productivity and lower churn on the staffing side as well as for agency/client relationships.

Ultimately, it’s going to lead to better work so it’s a win for everyone involved. If your agency or brand isn’t adopting this approach, you might want to rethink.



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