Love Shouldn’t Hurt: Relationship Advice for Marketing Agencies and the Companies That Hire Them

It might seem strange to mark St. Valentine’s Day by talking about breakups, but how can one ever hope to find true love without examining why past relationships didn’t work out? Here on the agency side, we hear about relationships gone bad all the time. 

“Our last agency didn’t work out.”
“We’re pretty jaded about agencies.”
“We use agencies but we don’t trust them.” 

Why do people feel this way? It seems so… personal. Maybe that is the point. The relationship between a company and its marketing or public relations agency IS deeply personal. Or, it should be at least, and when that personal relationship goes sideways, it hurts both parties. Personally. But where can things go wrong? Let’s start by talking about where things go right. 

Any agency worth their salt makes their clients’ problems theirs. Acting as a thought partner, not a vendor, they will function as an extension of the company’s team. They will internalize the company’s story and institutional knowledge. They will mind-meld with the people working with the company and bond with them as people. And all of that starts with both parties deciding whether they like the other and want to invest a great deal of time and energy with the people across from them. Most importantly, they have to have complementary goals for the future. 

Good personal relationships are built on mutual respect: each person values who the other is (and is not) and understands the other person’s boundaries. From mutual respect grows mutual trust in which both parties place trust in each other to do what they say they will, to the best of their ability, acting in good faith, and giving each other the benefit of the doubt. Or, as a former colleague once described it, assume positive intent.

In his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni identifies the “absence of trust” as one of the most common dysfunctions of a team. Trust allows a relationship to grow and evolve. Trust allows communication, which is crucial to success. 

In personal relationships as in business, the foundations of trust and respect are rooted in good, honest, and open communication, flexibility and compromise, consistent fairness, a shared vision of the future together, and shared wins AND losses that highlight solutions and avoid blame. That’s asking a lot from any two parties, but that’s how a long-term, healthy partnership is born. So, when a relationship breaks down, it’s typically due to one of these pillars breaking down.

Honestly, when an agency hears that a potential client has hired a new agency every 9-12 months for the past five years, that’s a big red flag. Or when a company asks an agency they’re considering for past client references and gets evasive answers in return, it suggests a shady past. To be blunt, when you have a series of failed relationships, at some point, you have to do a little soul searching and be open to the idea that the problem might be you.

What does this all mean? All relationships take time, energy, and intentional effort. Perhaps the path to good, long-term success in an agency-company relationship, both parties need to be a little more personal. Both agency and company teams often work so hard that they forget about the people trusting and respecting them AND to trust and respect them in return. 

Do you have a story of an agency relationship gone good or bad? We’d love to hear it. Drop us a line and tell us how you found true agency love or got your heart broken.