Sanjeev Kotnala: Be Professional in Client-Agency Relationships

21 Nov,2018

By Sanjeev Kotnala


What is true for personal life is true for professional life too. Relationships take time to build. They need an investment of time, efforts and a lot of trust and faith. Moreover, yet, in many relationships, there comes a stage when breaking it is more productive than continuing with it.

I believe, no one wants to end relationships nurtured over time. They are full of collective dreams, shared emotions, successes, failures and a sense of accountability.  However, sometimes the relationships truly stagnate. There is nothing much left in it. Then breaking off is the most logical thing to do.

A client-agency relationship is such an example. Many of us have been on one of the two sides and impacted with these sudden and sometimes uncalled for actions.

Whenever relationships end or are terminated, stakeholders on both sides feel the impact. Each side believes they never got justified time to react and get their act right. Many think it is too late too little. Some feel guilty for the right or wrong reasons.

Everyone knows a part of the truth. Everyone has a point-of-view that he or she swears by. Old incidents are re-evaluated with hindsight to make a point. The signals are usually there even for the blind to see, yet many fail to read the smoke signals.

There is no SOP for breaking a relationship. Everyone learns it on the job. No one teaches how it needs to be done.  There are no set patterns and advisors to help you do it.



Nowadays, most of the client-agency relationships tend to be transactional. People are justified in protecting their turf. When the blame game starts, professionally it is crucial to remain untainted in the post-mortem.

The truth is that every day, the agency gives a client a reason to terminate the relationship. Also, every day the client provides the agency with a reason to hate. The critical question they must ask is; is it a good enough reason to break the alliance.

Getting over the breakup is more natural than the act of breaking up.

Getting into the new alignment, pitching in for more business, taking time off from work are all helpful tips to ease the pain and hurt.  Blaming and bad mouthing each, however, is not recommended. Unfortunately, there is more of it.

What is missing is a bit of soul searching and analysing where things went wrong. Life is all about learning and moving on. There is no point living in the past.

In breaking a relationship both the parties lose. There is a considerable loss of collective knowledge and understanding of the business environment.


Client-agency relationship is critical for businesses. The client and agency are collectively responsible for the strategic intent and execution of co-owned co-created campaigns and strategic marketing initiatives. If the relationship of mutual respect and trust has deteriorated to a vendor-client status, there is no future in it. Unfortunately quite a few relationships are thinly balanced at this edge.

It happens when they fail to define the expectations and the reasons for coming together.  They do not know as to why they are collectively devoting time and energies. There are no measurement matrices to evaluate the efficacy of the relationship. There are no open discussion and reviews from time to time.

In such a situation, where stress is allowed to build up. The conversation breaks up. The relationship appreciation or issues are faked. The tectonic pressure build’s up. The relationships sour the relations.


Most of the issues can be ironed out with a discussion. Most of the explanations are acceptable only if someone is willing to share and hear. It is essential that every issue is ironed out at the very beginning.

Learning from such episodes and evolving a system to prevents a repeat of it should be the aim. However, when everything fails, you need to take the hard decision.

Follow these to help to create a long-lasting client-agency relationship.

  •    Define the client-agency expectations.
  •    Have a quarterly review mechanism in place.
  •    Ensure strategic co-creation so that both sides own the process and results.
  •    Be professionally open in voicing POV on any subject critical to the job at hand and relationship.
  •    Immediately address any issues that emerge. Do not allow tectonic pressure to build up.
  •    Be logical, rational and practical with expectation.
  •    In a multi-agency set-up ensure that everyone is on-board at the same time.


Don’t hide behind the protective layers of the organisational structure. Whenever the situation demands call the other party, deliver the news face to face.  Teams that worked together deserves a genuine conversation. Do not do that over WhatsApp, a mail or a letter. Don’t protect yourself by isolating the other party. Don’t let them know it from the press or any other third party source. Moreover, please do not start a pitch before you tell the current agency its fate. It is what every client-agency relationship deserves though it may fail to dilute the impact.

Maybe, there is a need to create a process for such a situation. Unfortunately, no SOP or guideline exists for such circumstances. Everyone has their ways to handle such a situation. On the other side, look at it positively.  Maybe it is better to develop an SOP of nurturing relationships and talent that comes along with it. Hopefully, you will not need to terminate the relationship.


In my agency avatar, I have lost few clients in spite of best service and excellent work on the brand. I have retained clients for far longer than what global alignments allowed and have even sacked a client. In my client avatar, I may be the rare client who gave a farewell party to the agency while parting ways.


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