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6 Keys to a Strong Content Marketing Agency-Client Relationship

Professional relationships are hard work. But, like personal relationships, the key to success is open, honest communication. I’ve experienced both the corporate and agency sides and know this to be true for the content marketing agency and client relationship.

While delivering on goals is how success is measured, the key contributor is not easily quantifiable – the relationship between the agency and client. Here are six tips to establish a successful, long-lasting content marketing agency relationship.

1. Pitch perfection

While all relationships take time, agencies and clients need to establish the foundation from the start. The initial pitch meeting is a great way to kick off the client relationship. The key is for the agency to always focus on the client. The agency owner (or whoever is pitching the client) offers the first impression of the agency’s personality, expertise, and capabilities, and that’s important.

But the best way to build rapport with the client is by understanding their needs going into the pitch. Who is their audience? What sets them apart within their industry? Doing a little homework up front can make or break the client’s decision to go with the agency (or not). And if it takes more than one meeting to sign the client, agencies must be sure to follow up on everything promised in the first interaction.

The best way to build rapport with clients is by understanding their needs going into the pitch, says @JeremyBednarski via @cmicontent. Share on X

When a successful pitch leads to a paid project, this is the real chance for the agency to prove it understands the client’s needs and goals. A well-researched, polished presentation that excites the client will grow the relationship. It will also establish how the groups will work together going forward (more on this below).

Agency tip: Involve the account manager with the client as early as possible. The client might like the owner, but it’s the relationship with the account manager that’s going to matter most in the day-to-day interactions.

Also, the owner and account manager need to be on the same page to understand the client’s goals and the solutions they recommend. I’ve seen owners overpromise agency capabilities and/or underquote work to get the job. This hurts the relationship down the line when the agency is not able to deliver or has to do some of the work for free. Both scenarios reflect badly on the account manager and the agency as a whole.

Client tip: Be sure to engage the account manager in your discussions, even when the owner is doing the majority of the presenting. You need to know the level of the manager’s expertise and their ability to communicate it to you. Once on board, the owner will be off to the next client pitch and you’ll be dealing with the manager. You need to make sure your comfort level is as strong with the account manager as it is with the owner.

You need to make sure your comfort level is as strong with the account manager as it is with the owner, says @JeremyBednarski via @cmicontent. #agency Share on X

2. The content marketing strategy

The content marketing strategy may be the biggest piece of the relationship-building process. It grounds and drives all programs and successes. It’s important that both sides agree to the strategy and messaging before the agency moves forward. If not, the agency won’t succeed and the client relationship will deteriorate.

Beth Kapes, president of Moving Words Into Action, understands better than most the importance of the strategy. Companies call her to fix programs when there was no initial strategy or the agency drifted away from the plan. She offers this advice:

Strategizing who you are as a brand and crafting the messaging that’s most important for your audience is imperative before beginning any content marketing initiative.

Beth continues:

As a consultant, I’m brought in often years after an agency began a campaign without a clear content strategy defined between them and the client. As a result, the client becomes frustrated and ready to cut ties because the brand’s message and, most importantly, its audience is an afterthought — making the overall ongoing efforts disjointed and ineffective.

Beginning #contentmarketing without a clear strategy can frustrate the client later, says @BKapes via @cmicontent. #agency Share on X

One of the best first steps to build a successful strategy is through interviews with the client’s staff or its customers (ideally both). “Unfortunately, I find over and over that this has never happened (and) general, online research becomes the guidepost. Bottom line: it’s all about the client and no two are the same,” Beth says.

Agency tip: Provide the client with a documented content marketing strategy. This is the key factor that separates successful companies and those that struggle. Make sure the client understands that all content requests must align with this strategy

Client tip: Share the proposed content marketing strategy and messaging with customer-facing employees. They know what questions and problems they deal with most. (You may need to make the final call when their opinions differ.)

3. Defining the marketing goals and tactics

The strategy should include agreed-upon goals and key performance indicators (KPIs). Show how the tactics (the actual work the agency will do) will help achieve them.

The #contentmarketing strategy should include agreed-upon goals & KPIs, says @JeremyBednarski via @cmicontent. #agency Share on X

Detail how all the tactics work together to get the best results. For example, a single blog post can serve many purposes – SEO, audience experience, and thought leadership. It’s crucial to spend the time explaining each tactic and its role in the customer journey. In my experience, clients who better understand the value of each tactic are less likely to question programs later and/or cut those programs to save on budget.

Agency tip: Define what work falls under vague words like “optimization” and “marketing management.” Many clients ask me what those words mean and what actual work falls under them. It’s also a good idea to specify what is NOT included if you can. Explaining now will prevent confusion and frustration later.

Client tip: If you need to revise your agency expenses, remember how interconnected all the tactics are. Talk to your agency about what cuts could be made with the most minimal effect on your overall content marketing strategy.

4. Establishing roles

As the content marketing agency and client relationship begins, define the roles of each for a shared approach of leadership and decision-making — a joint effort for success.

Agency role

One way I’ve seen relationships get off track is agencies not knowing their scope of authority. This creates a gray area in what decisions the agency can make on its own and when it needs client approval. And when the agency needs approval, who can give it on the client side?

Agencies often get off track when they don’t know their scope of authority, says @JeremyBednarski via @cmicontent. #agency Share on X

The agency also needs to understand how it fits in relation to the client’s full organization. Does the agency act as the client’s marketing department or is it an extension of the client’s marketing team? If the client has an internal marketing team, who leads the charge?

Client role

As there are expectations for the agency, there are also expectations for clients. They should establish a primary point of contact. This helps avoid confusion over who to go to if an issue arises or for approval to move forward on a project or request.

The client’s subject matter experts often play a key role in content creation. The content marketing agency will need access to them. Clients need to explain how that identification and outreach should occur. Clients also need to be ready to help facilitate the subject matter expert communication if the agency is having trouble connecting.

Agency tips: While the account manager is the main contact, make sure your clients know who is doing the work. Introduce the full team and explain who does what. This helps the client relate to “the team” references as people. Also, the main agency contact should provide regular updates on its progress and activities to any internal stakeholders who are involved in the work.

Client tip: While you need your SMEs to focus on their primary work, their input is crucial to the quality and credibility of the content.

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5. Budget approval

Nothing kills a business relationship more than money. Being as transparent as possible up front will help avoid issues. Clients must understand how the agencies charge for the work and what’s included. Most agencies tend to charge in three ways or a combination of the three. All are based on the time spent doing the work:

  • Hourly – $X per hour based on actual time spent
  • Monthly retainer – recurring charge based on time allocated to client’s tasks each month
  • Project-based – one price for the projects that have a defined start and end

It’s also helpful to establish at the start an approval process in case additional costs arise. This process can apply to full new projects, out-of-scope items for an existing project, or budget depletions during normal course of activity. Always require the request to be made and approval gained before the additional work begins.

Agency tip: Explain exactly what the client will see on the invoice every month. This includes any costs for tools you may use for the work you perform (i.e., SEO tools, website plug-ins, etc.).

Client tips: If you pay a monthly, hourly-based retainer, understand how much time is included. Also, ask what happens if those hours aren’t used. Is a discount given? Is that time forfeited, or does it roll over to the next month?

6. Keep communicating

Up-front communication is key, but ongoing conversations keep the relationship humming along. Both the agency and client need open lines of communication. First, determine a set meeting schedule. Weekly or monthly tend to work best. When possible, take advantage of any opportunities for face-to-face meetings. I recommend at least twice per year. Although the world now revolves around teleconferencing, nothing beats in-person interactions.

Up-front communication between the #agency and client is key, but ongoing conversations keep the relationship humming along, says @JeremyBednarski via @cmicontent. Share on X

Ensure that monthly reports are produced and reviewed together. It’s OK to send ahead of time with some highlights, but agencies should verbally explain what the data is showing. Agencies can use this time to demonstrate their expertise and value to the client. It also can be an opportunity to discuss changes if the results aren’t as expected.

Agency tip: Be sure to celebrate the wins and accomplishments with your client. Whether it’s hitting your annual goal or completing a major project, etc., make sure they’re included in the celebration because they worked with you to make it happen.

Client tip: Be sure to keep the agency updated on major happenings within the company. Every three to six months give a status update to make sure you’re still aligned. It’s crucial that you share any changes in your overall business strategy and goals with the agency. Then it can determine whether an adjustment needs to happen to the content marketing strategy. You always need to be on the same page.

It’s crucial that you share any changes in your overall business strategy and goals with the #agency, says @JeremyBednarski via @cmicontent. Share on X

Better relationships can translate to bigger success

Every client-agency relationship is different. But these guidelines can get you started on the right foot. You can adjust for the nuances of your situation as you need, but this will build a foundation for a strong, healthy, happy, (hopefully) long and successful relationship.

If you have any more client-agency relationship tips, please share them in the comments.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute