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How to Give Your Agency Partner Feedback

Elle Morris

black and white photo of two people on laptop, one man with arm raised inquisitively

Don’t be shy about providing honest, timely feedback. Transparency is at the core of any successful client/agency partnership.

One of the most complex relationships in our industry is the client and agency partnership. When it’s working well, everyone is on the same page and the business results are there to prove it. Both parties are satisfied in their own identities and in their identity as a team. When it’s not working, it can be toxic; one side holds back things they’d like to say, while the other side feels there is something wrong and looks for ways to try and please their partner—often driven by fear of losing the business.

Or worse, the client doesn’t share its disappointment and leaves its agency partner with no warning. I’ve even been in situations in which the client calls to inform that it’s conducting an request for proposal (RFP) with no warning, and then invites the agency as an incumbent to participate in that RFP. In my 20-year career, I’ve not once seen an incumbent win when invited to an RFP.

All of this comes down to one thing: feedback. As a client, providing your agency with actionable, clear feedback in the moment (not six months later when inviting them to an RFP or firing them) offers the agency the opportunity to address the outage. This is the only fair way to manage the relationship. You should also evaluate all your current and prior relationships with agencies. How did those relationships end? Is it the same story each time? Was it a case of, “They were great until they stopped being great, so we let them go”? If that’s the case, there’s likely more to the situation.

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To be a fair client, you must also be willing to take feedback and accept that, as in every relationship, there is give and take. Very rarely do marriages break up due to the actions of one party. Your team isn’t perfect. They may need training and guidance, such as how and when to provide actionable feedback, writing a proper brief or understanding research results.

Giving Actionable Feedback

Regardless of the situation, understand that no agency ever intentionally misses a brief. There is a lot of time and energy spent on putting together creative presentations. If an agency has missed the mark, there needs to be a candid conversation around how they did so. Refer to documents to which you both aligned and investigate where things went off track. Remember: We take our jobs very seriously, so we’re dismayed to hear when something we’ve accomplished isn’t on task. Provide transparent insights on exactly what you were expecting so we can candidly discuss how we missed it. Then, give your agency a true second chance to course-correct. If you are unable to do so (i.e., it’s out of your hands or you aren’t willing to give them the chance to fix it), the respectable approach is honesty.

If your agency performs well and delivers, but there are certain things that you expected (and didn’t necessarily articulate), then you need to do a little soul-searching. Is it their fault for not reading your mind? Or should you have stated what you were looking for in the brief? If you expect to see something in a presentation, that needs to be clearly communicated. And you should be able to state the rationale and how it addresses the brief. This approach will align everyone and you won’t be yearning to see something that you didn’t ask for (thus building up some sort of resentment with your agency partner which can resurface).

Like any relationship, your agency wants honest and timely feedback. We don’t want to hear that things are great when they aren’t. We don’t want you to swallow the desires that you’d like to have articulated but didn’t. We want to deliver the best creative possible and make you look like a rock star. That’s why you hired us to begin with. If you don’t have chemistry with one of our people, please don’t be shy about telling us. We get it; not everyone clicks.

Bottom Line

Don’t ever think that withholding feedback is a “good thing,” even if it means temporary discomfort in communicating difficult information. Don’t sugar coat it. Say what you mean and mean what you say. We are grown-ups; we want to know what’s not working. Conversely, we’d also like to know what is working. When you’ve got tough news to share, start with the good stuff, then raise the opportunity areas. Also, be open to feedback. Understand that yes, while you are paying us, this is a partnership. If your side isn’t giving us what we need and we can’t tell you about it, the work will never be as great as it could and should be.

When in doubt, always speak to the most senior person on the totem pole and have a frank discussion. If you don’t get action, then it’s time to reevaluate your relationship.

Photo by Charles on Unsplash.

Elle Morris is the CEO of Snapdragon, a female-owned and female-led design consultancy.