November 1, 2021
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Agency issues: What’s forgivable and when it’s time to move on

This article outlines the four indicators of a healthy agency relationship: leadership, communication, expertise, and outsourcing.

“When we first started out, things were great. But now…I feel like you don’t even know me anymore. I don’t feel like a priority to you. I think we need a break.”

Romantic relationship? Agency relationship? The same sentiment applies. In both, you deserve to have your needs met, to feel valued, and to feel confident that your partner has your back. But things aren’t always rainbows and butterflies. So, what is an acceptable hiccup and when is it time to move on?

Signs your breakup is justified and healthy from an agency insider’s perspective

When you hire an agency partner to help move your business forward, results aren’t all that matter. In fact, a lack of results alone is rarely a dealbreaker—and for good reason.

Professional service relationships, like all relationships, are built on trust. And when you are paying for someone to think, work, and produce results on your behalf, a lack of trust can break your relationship. What might ordinarily be a forgivable offense in a trusting environment often triggers outsized responses once the trust is broken. Thoughts like, “Is that recommendation being given because it’s the right strategic thing to do or is it because it’s contract renewal time?” signal the beginning of the end.

I’ve worked in the agency world for nearly 20 years, with over 150 clients and well over 1,000 client contacts. I’ve been on both sides of the relationship—helping take over when things have gone sour with a different partner and offboarding clients as they leave for a new one.

Sometimes the client wasn’t being prioritized, or the work quality had started suffering. Other times, the client experienced an isolated incident, but the damage was still done.

In my experience, those isolated incidents can typically be resolved with a conversation and a cocktail. But repeated patterns of bad behavior are usually a sign you should re-evaluate your agency relationship.

There are four primary markers for assessing the health of your agency relationship: leadership, communication, expertise, and outsourcing. Read on to learn when you should consider your relationship challenges as water under the bridge versus when it’s clearly time to jump ship.

 

 

Leadership

You don’t hire an agency to take orders; you hire them to lead. You have internal expertise in many areas, and your agency should supplement that.

But how do you know they’re effectively “leading”?

To paraphrase David Redding, one of my favorite leaders and the founder of a nationwide fitness and leadership movement, leaders should initiate movement in such a way that people follow—and gain advantage as a result. If they do not initiate change, a leader might be managing, or maintaining, but they are not leading.

First off, your agency shouldn’t be order takers. They should regularly bring you fresh ideas. They won’t all be winners. In fact, some will be utter failures. But they should keep the ideas flowing. Even in the early days of your relationship, when they’re still learning about your business, they should be providing you with a fresh point of view.

Secondly, your agency should push you outside your comfort zone. They should question you frequently to ensure your requests are in line with your business goals. The sign of a great relationship isn’t that it’s flawless; relationships are a commitment between two parties to grow together. No friction, no fire.

Leadership is uncomfortable, and a good agency partner will prove that. If you aren’t being challenged and pushed by your agency, then you aren’t being led. You are paying your agency to lead your company through a variety of initiatives. If they aren’t leading, it’s time to re-evaluate.

Legitimate leadership mistakes agencies make

Let’s face it; things happen. People have bad days. They accidentally miss things. Team members quit. Personal issues, in life or health, don’t always come up in status calls.

If your agency partner has a leadership mindset, they will let you know when things arise that could affect your business. And if they’re honest and prompt with that information, you’ll be more likely to respond with empathy.

Leaders are honest. And if the issues are temporary, you can get through them together.

Systemic patterns that show lack of leadership

How do you know if your leadership problems are systemicThis is one you’ll likely feel before you have a list of facts to back it up. Consider the following questions.  

Does everyone always agree with you? Is the “client always right”? Do you always feel like your agency team has higher priorities? Do you remember the last time your agency brought you a new idea, or do you feel as though they are on autopilot? Are you on your third new account person in six months? Can you name the leaders on your account: technically, creatively, or strategically? Do they initiate movement and change for you? Is your agency partner not contributing meaningfully to their field and just phoning it in? 

If the answer to any of these questions is a “yes,” you probably do not have active leadership on your account. And it’s time to lead yourself out of that situation by initiating meaningful change to a new partner.  

 

 

Communication

Just like we can all agree on the proper orientation of the toilet paper on the roll (over for the win, every time!), we all know that communication is key in any relationship. You should be in frequent contact with your agency relationship manager regarding status of projects and tasks, hours burn, account health, data insights, recommendations, and more.

Sometimes you’ll initiate those conversations, but the onus is primarily on your agency partner to keep you informed. If you find yourself continually waiting for status reports, having to ask, “where are we with X,” or you feel as though your agency is deliberately avoiding contact, there is likely something greater at play.

Legitimate communication mistakes agencies make

Once again, accidents happen. Systems malfunction. Emails occasionally disappear into the ether. Automated reports get corrupted. People misjudge anticipated risks and impacts to timelines. Cats, dogs, and toddlers all step on keyboards.

If your agency misses a communication opportunity here or there, I strongly recommend responding with empathy. Provide feedback. Explain your expectations around communication—and be honest about the impact that lack of communication has on your relationship. Good communicators will want that feedback, and they’ll work to adjust in the future.

Systemic patterns that show lack of communication

Do you find yourself needing to ask for the same things…again and again? Do you constantly wonder about the status of your maintenance ticket? Is this the fourth change order on your project due to scope not being captured properly up front?  

In my experience, the “rule of threes” reigns here. One or two communication missteps is forgivable—but the third one, especially if it’s the same issuewill be taken as absolute violation of trust. And if you’re past that, you have identified a predictable behavioral pattern.  

You need an agency who proactively communicates with you. You should feel like they’re paying attention—to you specifically and to your account. You should feel assured that they’re being proactive.  

If you consistently feel uninformed about the status of your projects, the performance of your web properties, or the state of your agency relationship, you’re likely experiencing systemic communication issues that may not be redeemable 

 

 

Expertise

You hire an agency under the assumption that they know more about certain things than you do. Your agency should provide clear expertise on salient issues, be them technological, creative, or within your industry. If they aren’t, I can guarantee that any seeds of doubt about their capability will eventually bloom into full-blown discontent and resentment.

Legitimate expertise mistakes agencies make

“Maybe they don’t know as much as I thought they did…” 

Maybe not. But we should all be learning and growing in our roles, and this is no different. 

Yes, agencies should be subject matter experts. They should know significantly more than you and your team about certain things; that’s why you hired them.  

But much like your own, their industry is constantly changing. And if you are doing great work together, some projects should be pushing boundaries and doing new things that haven’t been done before. 

When that’s the case, a confident partner will be upfront about it. They should display leadership and proactive communication. Through the learning process, they should become smarter—and help you become smarter, too. 

Systemic patterns that show lack of expertise

This category is broad because there are a million reasons to hire an outside firm to help with your project, but again, the “rule of threes” can be a good barometer here. If you find yourself feeling that “I’m paying a lot for this and I just googled the answer they spent hours researching,” there might be a bigger problem.  

How do you feel about the work your agency delivers? Does it occur within a reasonable amount of time? If it takes a while, have they explained why? There are many reasons for project and task overages, most of them quite legitimate. Any good partner would welcome the questions and the opportunity to explain. It’s when they can’t explain that you need to worry.  

Do their deliverables hit the mark? Is their creative intriguing? Is it pushing the boundaries? Or is it stale?  

How about their technical know-how? Does fixing something in one area of your website crash something on another side?  

There is no such thing as a perfect project or a perfect agency. But you must believe that your agency does good work. If they consistently fall short, it’s time to re-evaluate.  

 

 

Subcontracting

Subcontracting occurs whenever an agency partner uses someone on a part-time or contract-only basis to supplement the team who is getting your work done. And, especially in today’s gig- and remote-economy, subcontracting is a reality of the professional services world. Agencies, like many service-based businesses, cannot feasibly maintain a full-time staff with full-time availability for all clients in all situationsOften, they have team of contractors to supplement their full-timers as work demand ebbs and flows. 

Good news: managed properly, this is a net positive for you as a client. Subcontractors help keep the full-time members of your team around longermeaning less onboarding and less loss of brain trust on your accountSubcontracting is a time-tested way for your agency to maintain niche expertise and flex their staffing model to meet the demands of your business.

Legitimate mistakes agencies make with outsourcing

But for this staffing model to work, you need trusted people leading your agency team who know your businessand who are also accountable for maintaining the leadership, communication, and expertise talked about above.   

Your account manager, your project manager, and your technical leads should be senior to the agency. They should work alongside any subcontractors to get the job done. If you have three or more people on your agency team that you know and trust, then you are likely in good hands when they subcontract 

Systemic patterns that show lack of communication

This is a tricky subject because systemic problems with subcontractors are rarely the fault of the subcontractors themselvesthe vast majority of whom have outstanding performance and expertise. But, even for extremely strategic folks in this line of work, subcontractors should primarily be brought on to execute the work, not lead it. Therefore, the model typically breaks down any time a subcontractor is placed in a lead roleExceptions occur but, in general, you need your agency representatives who know your business at the helm.  

Leadership, communication, and core expertise should not be subcontracted. It must be provided by a competent team that is directly accountable to the agency partner for your successIf you find your status meetings, technical projects, or creative presentations being led by subcontracted staff, it’s a sure sign you are not getting the best an agency partner has to offer. 

Your agency shouldn’t peak at the sales pitch. Instead, like Weezer’s Blue Album, they should continually get better with time.   

The status of your leadership, communication, expertise, and outsourcing are the four biggest indicators of health for your agency relationship. If any of these systemic issues are present in your current agency relationship, it’s time to start evaluating new partners. And if you have a gut feeling that something isn’t right, use this list as your evaluation guide.  

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