Not Getting Great Work From Your Agency? Maybe It's You


Contrary to popular convention, advertising agencies can be a tough place to realize creative aspirations. Though if your agency is good enough, the odds that you will satisfy your creative passions improve, if only slightly. If your agency is really, really good, you might even tell a bad client or two to get lost. A rare treat indeed. And if, just if, your agency is even better than that, you won’t need to tell anyone off because every new client knows what they sign up for coming in the door. These shops are the advertising agency world’s 1%.

Then there is the rest of us, that 99%. Unless you are in that 1%, you are well advised to remember we’re in a service business. Clients are paying us to do what they want and invariably, after varying degrees of fight, receiving a check relies on giving clients what they want. Which is often not what they need. This is particularly painful for all agency people, not just creatives.

Emotional preservation demands creative folk acquiesce to the 80/20 rule. If 20% of the work feeds your creative spirit, you are doing great. Better than great, really. That other 80%, well, that fills out your timesheet and pays the bills.

Regardless of this harsh reality and lucky for all clients, creative people have this amazing ability to see every brief as a shot at genius, a new beginning, a Gold Lion, or a viral sensation. The lure of great is intoxicating. Many of us in the business believe, and I understand this is up for debate, that advertising in its many forms can be art. In that sense, we are artists. Just like art, not everyone will like it and it’s true, much of it sucks. But for most of us, a brilliant concept is pure art form, commerciality notwithstanding. When it all comes together, it is truly a thing of beauty. And it’s what great agencies aspire to do, every day, for every client.

And here’s the rub, the connection to this post’s headline, the whole point: in order for agencies to do great work, we need great clients. Too often we are hired for our expertise and judged by those unqualified to do so. Sure, agencies and clients both want the same outcome but agencies and many clients tend to get there in different ways.

  • Agencies want to take risk. The client wants to play it safe.
  • Agencies want to do what’s not been done before. Clients want new as well, as long as it has worked before.
  • Agencies want to disrupt the status quo. Client wants to make noise while maintaining the status quo… tricky.
  • We want to do work that is memorable. Clients shy away from memorable… again, risky.
  • We want to piss a few people off along the way. Clients, of course, want to offend no one.
  • Someone… ah… the agency, always has to give in. 

Gratefully, there are exceptions. Sweet, welcoming, exceptions. (Clients, you know who you are.) For all the risk-averse, hamstrung clients (often through no fault of their own), there are clients who truly know how to be, and are able to be, a partner. Clients for whom there is no such thing as managing to mediocrity. It is for clients like this agencies do their best work. These clients have guts and aren’t afraid of the fight. Clients like these are responsible for my fondest memories and my proudest moments. Even the potential of clients like this is why we get up every morning and do it all over again. Clients like this encourage risk and big thinking. They want breakthrough work and as important, they know what it takes to move good work through a complex and often dilutive corporate approval process. Great clients know how to get the best out of their agency because they know how to let the agency be the best it can.

These are the clients for whom we go to the ends of the earth for, and with. We happily do multiple all-nighters, and spend hours kerning type, wordsmithing, and pushing pixels to the point of obsession. It is their return on the trust they give us, on their belief in our ability. With these clients, we innovate, we disrupt, and we give of our soul. Together we make great work. Together is what it takes. Together is the only way.

So, what kind of work are you getting from your agency?