Set Agency-Client Expectations Early On or Risk Disappointment


The most important meeting an agency has with a new client is the agency-client expectations meeting.  And if during that meeting the agency team and client team aren’t as upfront and transparent as humanly possible about their expectations for each other, then expect any honeymoon period to be short-lived and D-I-V-O-R-C-E to follow.  If during that expectations setting meeting the two sides cannot hammer out agreement on what success looks like, run, don’t walk, away.

Running away from a new client engagement is so difficult to do for agency veterans. Even when we know in our hearts it’s the absolute right thing to do from past experiences, we still all too often hold out hope and err on the side of “well, maybe it will be different this time.” Yeah. No.  It’s rarely, if ever, different.  Throwing good money after bad is almost always a losing proposition.  The temptation is always to try to justify and preserve the time, money, blood, sweat and tears an agency may have poured into the client acquisition process. Heck, we’re not going to throw away all that hard work just because our expectations don’t jive with the client’s, right? Wrong. Moving forward when the two sides are world’s apart benefits no one.

An expectations meeting should occur shortly after the client has officially awarded the business to an agency — within the first couple of weeks of the new relationship.  During the courtship, before anyone’s John Hancock has landed on a letter of agreement, everyone is an angel and on their best behavior.  The agency wants the new business because the client is in a hot space, has angel money with the promise of Series A down the road, the management team has a track record of success, the product is disruptive, the company is on a possible IPO path and it would be soooo cool to work with these guys.  The client wants your agency as their partner because your team has relevant experience, knows the market, has a great rep and the right influencer relationships in place, and knows what’s coming around the next corner.  The agency and client say I Do and its off to the races — but all to often minus a comprehensive expectations meeting.

Two months in, things aren’t going so well, unbeknownst to the agency.  The excitement of the new engagement has waned some, sure, but we’re building for the client a foundation for sustainable story telling and everyone knows public relations is about the campaign and not the event, right?  Well, maybe not everyone does knows that.  Maybe your new client spells success with feature coverage in TechCrunch, VentureBeat and their hometown newspaper in the first six weeks of the engagement but you never bothered to ask, nor did they volunteer this information when they awarded you the business.

Oh-oh.  My Oh My.  This disappointing scenario is largely avoided when the agency insists on holding an expectations meeting in the early goings.

An expectations meeting  with a new client is different from a discussion of the client’s business goals. For example, the CEO may have the expectation that he/she is going to be actively involved in business press activities (or doesn’t want to be involved).   Does the client view media coverage as the most important outcome of the program, or is generating website traffic via inbound marketing more critical?  Setting clear expectations for how the communications program is going to run, and what each person’s  role and responsibility is, is key in  a new relationship.

In addition to being on the same page on what success looks like, expectation meetings are also ideal platforms for client and agency to agree to the establishment of a day-to-day working structure:

    • how will the client and agency account team members communicate on a day-to-day basis
    • which communications tools will be regarded as essential to real-time communications
    • what will be the schedule for formal weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual meetings to review the progress against agreed to objectives

Above all things, during an expectations meeting it’s imperative that client and agency are 1, honest and don’t over promise, 2, agree to revisit the expectations from time-to-time and 3, keep promises and apologize when they are broken (especially the agency).

What would you add to the list?  If you’re on the client side, have you had successful, long-term agency engagements without revisiting expectations on a regular basis?  We look forward to you joining the discussion and hearing about your best practices.

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4 Responses to “Set Agency-Client Expectations Early On or Risk Disappointment”

  1. Josef Blumenfeld May 7, 2014 at 2:43 pm #

    One key element that can often cause client-agency strife, is the degree to which senior talent will be engaged on an account. During the courtship and pitch, senior talent is engaged and visible. But, when budgets and billable hours come into play, an account team can quickly lose its strongest (but most expensive) talent. At times, this makes sense – but no client likes learning that there is a “more important” client (read: fatter budget) someplace else. Include this in expectations setting, and the relationship will be stronger as a result.

    • Jim Barbagallo May 9, 2014 at 8:13 pm #

      Great observation, Josef. A relationship where surprises of any kind are kept to a minimum is the best way to roll. Our approach is senior talent on the business all the time, so that’s at least one way Pilot minimizes “client-agency strife.” Of course, there are many other issues to always be looking out for as well.

  2. Mary Honan May 9, 2014 at 3:38 pm #

    We use a written document entitled Starting Strong to guide the initial “expectation setting’ discussion you reference including agreeing to communication preferences, establishing meeting schedules, confirming success metrics and discussing any other factors planned or underway at the business that could alter or affect marketing being a priority for senior management focus. From that initial meeting we have a communication foundation upon which to build. Going forward we utilize monthly meetings to have the opportunity to revisit the broader relationship and status of how things are progressing. Specifically, each month, Impact Reports are reviewed to present and confirm results as well as to use this time to confirm priorities, affirm success metrics and move away from marketing specifics to a broader discussion. This gives us a consistent framework to start strong and to work at keeping the relationship productive and conducive to open and frank discussions. Granted it is not fail-proof (and I have ignored early signs where we should not have engaged at all!), but it does help in not getting mired in details to lose sight of indicators that the working relationship is not on track.

    • Jim Barbagallo May 9, 2014 at 8:09 pm #

      Thank you for commenting, Mary, and for sharing your approach. Love the “Starting Strong” approach. As you say, it may not be fail-proof but starting strong is a great way to ensure the relationship remains strong.

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