Find Your Agency-Client Groove With a Contract That Sets the Right Rhythm [Video]

Conflicting expectations and communication styles can stress any agency-client relationship to its breaking point. To improve understanding and cooperation, try taking a more choreographed approach to creating your service contract.

Collaboration between agencies and brand marketers should function as a world-class dance team does, with everybody playing their part with trust, mutual respect, and a shared sense of purpose.

But as the marketing pressures mount and conflicting processes and priorities collide, these relationships can easily break down. Instead of executing on goals as a cohesive team, marketers on both sides of the fence end up squabbling, stepping on each other’s toes, and letting minor miscommunication get in the way of a strong performance.

When marketing agencies don’t set the right expectations from the start of each client relationship, we risk losing our footing and letting mutual trust dissolve over time. But by following a more choreographed approach to the contracting process, we can start to promote greater understanding and increase the value of our services.

Melissa Harrison, CEO of Allee Creative LLC, outlines some simple steps agencies can take to minimize client confusion throughout the content review process and set a stage where trust and productivity can flourish.

What’s tripping us up

The landscape is changing for all agencies – and specialized content agencies in particular. One trend I’ve seen, at least in the agencies that I’ve spoken with, is that brand marketing clients are moving a bit more toward project-based work than retainer-based work.

The trend toward brands taking their content operations in-house is a major driver of this shift. But content agencies are also feeling a pinch from media agencies, PR firms, consultancy firms, and other industry players that have started to offer their own content services as a way to grab a larger share of their clients’ marketing budget.

Adding all these new players to the field means our slices of the marketing pie are getting smaller. And it makes it all the more difficult to establish clear lines of communication, set the right expectations, and collaborate efficiently with all our clients’ internal and external stakeholders.

To strengthen our client relationships, agencies need to manage the terms and tone we set for our engagements says @MHBossLady via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Use your contract to set the stage for success

Regardless of the increased complexity of our landscape, it’s up to us to continually strengthen our client relationships and make sure we’re still building trust as we go along. And that process starts with how we manage the terms and tone we set for our client engagements.

Our contracts establish expectations for all our client interactions. But one way we’re doing them – and ourselves – a disservice is by including specific performance guarantees.

We work in an industry that’s constantly in flux. We can’t predict how information and situations might change in the future. So making these types of promises sets up our work to be judged through an unrealistic lens.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t emphasize to our clients that we will do our best to act as a true partner in helping them achieve their goals, or that we can’t provide clear examples of what we’ve been able to accomplish for other clients with a similar budget and scope.

But there’s a better way to communicate those messages. I recommend outlining the following information in every contract to establish the right expectations:

  • Legal names and addresses for your agency and the client
  • Contract duration, the scope of work (SOW), and specific contract terms: This should be the most detailed section of the contract, so you can always refer to these items if questions or conflicts occur. Not only should it outline the timeframes, assumptions, and specific deliverables your agency will provide, it also should cover any information and cooperation you require from the client to achieve those goals.
  • Conditions for termination: Address what happens if either party decides to end the contract, what your policies are for handling the process, and any fees that might be involved when taking this action.
  • Breach of contract: Discuss the situations that would constitute a breach and what the implications and resulting actions may be.
  • Amendments and renewals: Include your policies for handling work that falls outside of scope, as well as how far in advance you require contracts to be renewed.
  • Invoicing and payments: Discuss your standard invoicing policies and timelines, accepted payment types, and how delays and delinquencies will be handled.
  • Confidentiality requirements, proprietary information, and copyrights: Clients may require you to sign non-disclosure agreements or relinquish your rights to use their brand assets to promote your agency. But, it’s also your responsibility to protect any intellectual property you bring into the relationship, so it’s a good idea to outline those elements here.
  • Communication standards: If you prefer that your team members keep to a set schedule of working days/hours, work with specific collaboration tools, or receive information, feedback, and materials from the client on a certain timeline, outline those terms here.
  • Team personnel: Clients want to know who’s on their team and you want to make sure your staff can balance their time and workloads effectively. Addressing personnel questions upfront will help minimize client confusion, worker overexertion, and keep the communication flowing smoothly even when issues arise or work interruptions occur.

Know your value – and communicate it to your clients

Clients hold certain expectations for their contracted agencies, but this relationship isn’t a one-way street. Coming together and agreeing on how everyone will treat one another is key to establishing a trusted and valued agency-client relationship.

For example, I include the following statement in all our contracts. Feel free to use it as a template for your own statement – just massage the details to suit the work style for your agency:

Allee Creative includes a values and expectations statement in all contracts.

Including this statement is a direct way to communicate what we value as an agency. It also establishes a mutual understanding of our expectations and preferred terms of engagement.

This has helped us proactively address several issues at once:

  • It sets the tone for the values we uphold in our partnerships, while also setting clear parameters for our availability.
  • It establishes our timelines and deadlines and outlines what we require to manage responses and approvals efficiently.
  • It emphasizes our commitment to supporting our clients’ business goals through our work.
  • It sets up our expectations for communicating with our clients, and how we might respond if that communication should break down. This is particularly critical, as it has helped us reduce the need to hound our clients during potentially stressful points in our project workflow.

Though the statement as a whole is lengthy, each component serves a specific purpose, which we can then elaborate in more detail in other parts of the contract.

Set weekly expectations and send reminders

Establishing the right cadence for each client is essential. Communicate too infrequently and they don’t trust you’re working. Communicate too much and they’re overwhelmed.

Establishing the right cadence for each client is essential. Communicate too infrequently and they don’t trust you’re working. Communicate too much and they’re overwhelmed says @MHBossLady via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

One technique we use to find the right balance is to deliver a brief email update every Friday. It doesn’t have to be any more than a quick, bulleted list that summarizes what was discussed and accomplished that week, outlines the items that are still outstanding, and notes what’s coming up in the week ahead. It’s also a helpful way to point out any issues that might affect communication in the upcoming week – such as team member travel, schedule changes, or other potential delays.

When it comes to day-to-day management of workflow, it’s also useful to include details on the following five points in your contract to help set clear expectations for communication on key project processes, deliverables, and performance analysis:

  • General meetings: When and how regular meetings will take place (by phone or video conference, through on-site meetings, etc.) and under what circumstances will additional meetings need to be scheduled.
  • Content review: Include the general requirements, routing processes, and point people involved at each phase of the project.
  • Stats/reports: What data will be collected; how and when it will be distributed and accessed.
  • Creative and technical approvals: What teams/members need to sign off; at what points in the process are approvals necessary; and what the standard routing procedures and turnaround times are.
  • Campaign dashboards and wrap-ups: What processes will be put in place to measure performance; when will data dumps occur; how that data will be stored and shared; which team members will need access.

Share knowledge and stand by your principles

Even the best-written contracts and SOWs can’t account for every unexpected circumstance since priorities and circumstances can shift rapidly. Whether the client changes their mind on a specific point or new data dictates that they go in a different direction, you need to plan additional ways to navigate those pivots without sacrificing your principles – or your client relationships.

Clients look to their agencies for effective strategies and expert advice. That means you’ll probably have to push back on ideas that you don’t believe will make sense for their business.

That’s not always a comfortable position to be in – especially when these change requests come in at the last minute or result from an earlier miscommunication or error in calculation. But these are the times when it’s most necessary to stand firmly by your principles and deliver the valuable service they hired you to provide.

I’ve found the best way to approach unexpected pivots is through education. Clients don’t always know what they don’t know, and sometimes they will request something without fully realizing all the implications of executing on it. By politely explaining it in terms they can understand – such as noting the billable hours that would be involved and other timelines that might be impacted – they get a clearer understanding of what’s at stake and can use that information to determine how to proceed.

The best way to approach unexpected pivots is through education. Clients don’t always know what they don’t know, says @MHBossLady via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Examples and case studies can be hugely valuable to those education efforts. Having a simple one- or two-page case study (with visuals where possible) on hand that is similar to the scope of their new request will help clients recognize your expertise in this area and visualize the results they can (and can’t) expect to achieve if they decide to go forward in the direction they’ve proposed.

End dysfunctional relationships firmly, yet graciously

If your client isn’t willing to accept your counsel when it matters most, it might be time to enact an exit strategy. The breakup scenario is never a fun situation to be in, and it’s a consideration that shouldn’t be taken lightly. But, in the long term, the stress of ending a bad relationship will likely be insignificant compared to what might happen if you decide to continue on a dysfunctional path.

Know when to say no: Here are a few signs and symptoms to look for in determining whether to terminate the engagement:

  • They aren’t ready for a relationship. Clients who lack the infrastructure or capabilities for supporting and scaling the results you bring in won’t receive the full value of your services.
  • You’re running the entire show. Signs include an ongoing failure to supply vital information or share timely feedback. It’s also a sign of trouble when they repeatedly cut off communication for long periods, then send a sudden surge of requests that overwhelm your team’s ability to respond.
  • They fail to pay on time – or at all. When this happens once or twice, you might be able to overlook it; but if it has become an ongoing pattern, it indicates a general lack of respect for your business that’s hard to ignore.
  • They make unreasonable demands. When requests for work that’s way out of scope or after-hours emergency emails become the rule rather than the exception, the demands on your resources may be exceeding the value their business provides to your agency.
  • It doesn’t bring you joy. If you and your team find yourselves overstressed and unhappy about coming to work every day on that particular account, it’s time to re-evaluate the relationship.

Go out on a high note: If you’ve accepted that the situation simply cannot be resolved, it’s important to end the engagement as gracefully as possible:

  • Give efficient notice whenever you can and make sure you’re well prepared to communicate the message. Having a standby script for this can help: Write down the reasons you came to this decision and practice the conversation so you can deliver it with confidence.
  • Always be candid but avoid playing the blame game. Showing mutual respect is key to communicating that this is a business decision and not a personal failure on anyone’s part.
  • Keep your bridges intact if you can. Things may not have worked out with that particular client at that particular time, but perhaps they’ll be better prepared to revisit the relationship down the line. If you know of other agencies that might be a better fit for their needs and current working conditions, you can also consider providing a referral.

Honor your partnerships while preserving your agency values

Even the most trusting agency-client relationships can quickly go downhill when avoidable miscommunication, misunderstandings, and misaligned expectations get in the way of the work that needs to be done. By proactively addressing potential points of conflict in your contract and outlining the values you strive to uphold, your agency and your client partners will be better able to focus on delivering stellar content marketing efforts.

Want to share your thoughts on this article or suggest additional ideas? Email us at [email protected].


Author: Melissa Harrison

Melissa Harrison is CEO at Allee Creative. She develops marketing strategies for brands across the globe, assisting in the creation, curation and execution content. She has a sweet spot for clients in the B2B, nonprofit, association and higher ed space. She is creator of Allee’s #12MonthsOfMarketing program and a graduate of the SBA’s Emerging Leaders Program. Strategy, process, and timelines are her jam (she’s never met a spreadsheet she didn’t like). Connect with her on Twitter @MHBossLady or LinkedIn.


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