Note from John: this is a guest post from Garrett Mehrguth of Directive Consulting. Garrett started Directive in Southern California and has a wealth of knowledge around how to make a consulting project successful. Take it away, Garrett!

There’s a general distrust of marketing agencies amongst in-house marketers and business owners alike.

As a marketer, you can sense this distrust from the moment you get on the phone with a prospective client. As an in-house marketer or business owner, you are all too familiar with weak reports and/or impersonal outbound emails letting you know that your rankings are down and they can help. Frankly, neither party is looking forward to the relationship and both parties are to blame.

The good news is that both parties can easily improve by putting themselves in the other person’s shoes. To expedite the process, I’ve outlined some practical steps and processes that can help agencies and clients work better together.

Stage 1: Initial Vetting and Discovery

The initial vetting and negotiation process is not a one-way street. While yes, the client is paying the agency, both parties have to be a good fit. Whose to say money is more valuable than time? Let’s look at the role each side plays and how they can improve.

The Agency’s Role

Transparency, frankness, and discrimination are key for an agency at this stage. When we first started, we were bootstrapped with a 21-year old’s savings to support us. We took any and everyone. While the experience allowed us to learn and build case studies, it did not give us a process for vetting clients or allow us to set a minimum retainer.

Now, we take a different approach. We treat our time as valuably as the client’s cash. Because of that, we only want to spend our time on accounts where there’s a great fit. To help clarify “fit”, here are some of the things we look for in our ideal client:

  • Enthusiasm: We are a passionate bunch. Getting awesome results is exciting. If we are not getting vibes of passion and enthusiasm in this stage we take note.
  • Great Website: We don’t do web design. We used to take clients with poor sites and quickly learned it’s like putting lipstick on a pig. These businesses are not at the stage where they need search yet. Build the relationship…but then wait. Be a resource, but wait to pitch till they’re ready.
  • Tough Questions: If the client is asking tough questions then it’s a great sign. We love clients with high expectations and you should too. We’ve found these clients have the lowest churn rate and send the most referrals because they know real work from the stuff that agencies not on this site do.

The Client’s Role

With the agency’s role in mind, let’s take a look at what clients should be looking for in the vetting and discovery phase, and some things to think of next time you hire an agency.

While your boss might think your role is to get the best price, the reality is you need the agency that will give you the most attention. Notice, I said attention over experience. The  reality is that the experience of the agency and the experience of the people working on your account are far too often two different things.

Thus, the key is finding an agency that’s at the right stage of their own growth for your business’s own objectives. Here are some things to think about as you go through the process:

  • Thought Leadership: Ask the agency you’re vetting to show you some of their latest thought leadership. This can range from content on other sites, their own site, or even speaking events. You want to be able to see how they think and their approach. The easiest way to do this is by reading what they write.
  • Who’s Working On My Account?: Like I mentioned before, the rock stars you see on their about page are not always the people behind the scenes. To make sure that you will work well with their team, ask to meet with whoever will be managing your account and the team that will be doing the actual work. Get to know them, ask questions, see how they think. If you like them, you will most likely like the agency.
  • Referrals: Getting a referral is one of the best ways to see what another person whose farther down the road thinks of the agency. To make this work even better for you though, ask for three referrals who have been with them for over a year. Everybody’s happy during the honeymoon. Find out what happens 8 months or even 12 months into the engagement.

Stage 2: Outlining the Deliverable

You found the client or agency of your dreams, but now you have to agree on scope and deliverables. Both parties need to be careful here. For the agency, it’s critical that they don’t take on work outside of their core competencies just for a bigger check. For the client, it’s critical that you don’t strip strategy away from the agency, but simultaneously maintain enough control to be able to steer both parties towards your clear objective. Notice, the key here for both parties to agree on a singular objective and then align the deliverable as the process for achieving it.

The Agency’s Role

Clarity is your primary objective here as an agency. You have built the relationship and established trust. Now, it’s time to outline and educate the client on not only the purpose of each deliverable but also the value of the deliverable. Furthermore, don’t undermine the value of the things not delivered: behind the scenes attention, consulting, past experience, and more. To help guide you, I’ve outlined our process to establish a clear deliverable an objective:

  • Sell in the Proposal. Clarify in the Contract: As you are outlining the value of what you will be delivering and the value it will provide the client, it’s important that you sell on value not task. However, the second the client is convinced of the value, it’s essential you outline the deliverable in your contract with clarity and transparency. One without the other doesn’t work. By not establishing the value and selling them on the purpose, they never fully buy into your proposal. But, by never clearly outlining your deliverable they don’t actually know what they are purchasing. Separate the two in stages and you will establish a more fruitful relationship.
  • Establish a Realistic Timeline & Educate: Proper expectations are the difference between churn and retention. By establishing realistic timelines for the impact of your efforts and educating the client on the logic for why it takes this long, is crucial to the health of your relationship.
  • Set a Singular Objective: While you may be looking to accomplish many things in your engagement: grow organic traffic, increase conversion rates, decrease cost per acquisition, etc. It’s critical that you have a singular objective. I’ve found that by focusing on revenue or lead volume, you can better quantify the value of your retainer and the marketing metrics you’ve improved. Remember, marketing metrics and business objectives rarely correlate to the C-Suite so don’t rely on those when revenue or leads haven’t grown.

The Client’s Role

As a client, the goal again is clarity, but it’s crucial that you communicate your own strengths and weaknesses. The best agencies will understand the assets you have internally and leverage them. Your ideal agency is exceptional at their deliverable and makes your internal team better at their own tasks. I don’t believe that an agency should replace an internal team; but instead, they can provide insight, guidance, and difficult to hire expertise. If guided correctly with clear deliverables that both parties understand, the relationship is on solid ground.

  • Outline What You’re Team Will Be Doing First: Rarely, does a client break down what their own internal team’s objectives and goals are, but when they do it’s a lethal combo. If you can articulate your own internal team’s objectives, deliverables, and timeline, the “right” agency will be able to provide feedback to improve that process and then align themselves to amplify your objectives. The agency truly does not know what you and your team are doing if you don’t clearly tell them and keep them up to date.
  • Be Clear On Expectations: The agency can not read your mind. While they might have seemed to perfectly understand you in the sales process, there’s typically a knowledge transfer between sales and accounts. It’s critical that you re-educate your account manager on all of your expectations. While I know this should be the agency’s role, to protect your investment I highly recommend you review the scope of the deliverable with the team actually executing the work.

Stage 3: The Initial Project

Typically, most marketing and advertising campaigns undergo multiple stages as the relationship develops. I would argue that the initial project is the most critical. In this stage, the agency and the client set the foundation for the success of the ongoing work. For example, if this is an SEO project, it’s essential that you have all of your technical SEO issues resolved and that your site is ready for growth. If it’s a PPC campaign, you will often need a rebuild, new landing pages, etc. All of this work is what sets the stage for your success.

The Agency’s Role

As an agency, this is the opportunity to be a rock star. You can take a campaign that’s sputtered or yet to be built and turn it into a success story. The key will be building out a hypothesis for what you think will happen if certain changes are made and swiftly executing. There’s no way to go from hero then to zero if you are not able to clearly articulate what you did, why you did, and the results you saw. We aim to complete our projects in thirty days. Here are some things we’ve learned:

  • Send Regular Updates During the Project: Your client just made a large investment. They need updates. Often times there’s multiple parties involved, so make sure you don’t just send updates to your PM. Keep the people who signed the contract informed as well and they’ll be more likely to renew.
  • Meet Your Deadlines: There’s no easier way to go from hero to zero than by dragging out a campaign. While you might have the success of a lifetime if the client has to wait for weeks for your team to complete the project you’ve already lost trust. We use Trello and break our projects into achievable sprints to make sure we get everything done by the due date.
  • Send a Gift: Your delightful client just put their neck out on the line for you. Send them a gift. We are not as great in this area yet ourselves, but you can build good will and honor the internal member of your client’s team who vouched for you by sending them a gift. Here’s a great way to do it:

The Client’s Role

You have thoroughly vetted your agency, outlined the deliverable, and are ready to get started. Make sure you have a launch meeting to start the project. More importantly, make sure that each member of the agency’s team who is working on the project is in the meeting. You don’t want to override the agencies processes, but it’s also important that you make sure they understand the importance of executing the project with expertise and expedience.

  • Request a Weekly Update: A weekly update is a healthy way of making sure that your agency never gets too far behind on your project and keeps you as the priority. While you might be thinking that this sounds like a lot of work…it is. But, agencies can suck. You don’t want to be the reason why they suck. Ask for an update on what they did, why they did it, and what they still have to do + dates on estimated completion.
  • Stay Informed, But Allow For Consulting: Now, this might seem to conflict the point directly above this, but you need to be a trapeze artist and toe the line of being concerted and hands off. Ideally, you want to gently prod the agency forward while still allowing them to spend more time consulting than they are reporting.
  • Make Sure It’s All Wrapped Up Before Moving On: Nothing. I repeat, nothing, is worse for the success of your campaign than an initial project that’s not properly finished. As the client, it’s your responsibility to make sure that no member of your team is bottlenecking the agency and that they are completely free to succeed. If they do not succeed or complete the initial project, pause everything until they do. Your success hinges on the execution of all of the agencies initial recommendations and you do not want to have a meeting in six months and have the agency explain that they never got “insert some type of dev work completed usually” here.

Stage 4: Monthly Management

The initial project is done, the results are rolling in, what’s next? The answer, more awesome consulting. If you are feeling like a hamster running on a wheel…that’s cause this is what agencies do. They run on a wheel constantly trying to earn the client’s approval. For some this is exhausting, for others it’s motivating. The key is that both the agency and the client work together on an ongoing basis to make sure that each party is feeling fulfilled.

The Agency’s Role

As an agency, you were not hired to come up with great ideas, do a project, and then send half-baked reports. Unfortunately, many agencies turn and burn their clients. You don’t want to be that agency. It’s not always because agencies are bad. It can be that they simply don’t set up their quote or deliverable correctly. Here are some things we learned:

  • Charge Enough to Not Worry: If you are constantly worried about if you are making money on a client then you did not charge them enough. The last thing you should be worried about is your profit margin. Instead, price your retainer on value and bust your butt to make the value you add to the client irreplaceable.
  • Constantly Up the Bar: If you, the agency, are still offering the same deliverable that you offered to clients even just three months ago you’re doing your client an injustice. Every day, someone is publishing findings from a new tactic or approach. Be on Twitter, consume this info, and repurpose these tactics in scalable ways for your accounts. Ask yourself, “would I hire my own agency to do this ongoing deliverable for my business?” If the answer is no then you have a problem.

The Client’s Role

Be your agencies favorite account…it’s that simple. Every agency has a couple of clients that make them wonder why they are still doing this. You don’t want to be that client. The good news is that other clients have set the bar so low for you that with a couple of simple things you can ensure that your agency loves you and gives you the extra attention you deserve. Relationships between agencies and clients rarely fail because of a lack of talent. They fail from a lack of time and attention.

  • Send Your Agency a Gift: Yes, I know you are paying them. But, you are competing with other accounts for that agencies best talent. You might not always have the biggest budget, but you can always be the best to work for. With a simple gift or a thank you, it’s easy to separate yourself and become a favorite account.
  • Make Visual Contact: While you might not always work with local vendors or agencies, it’s important that you constantly grow the relationship with your agency. An easy way to do that is via video conferences or in-person meetings. Keep them short, but a face-to-face meeting is never a bad thing.
  • Get Upper Management Involved: Results are not always positive. Sometimes the agency messes up, sometimes the client might mess up, either way if you get management involved along the way and keep them informed, you will cut both parties slack and allow for unavoidable setbacks.


Whether you have worked with hundreds of vendors or just starting your first campaign, I hope that the aforementioned tips and suggestions provide some insight from an agency’s perspective on how both parties can work better together. Please feel free to provide feedback or any suggestions of your own in the comments below.