46. Client/Agency Prenups: The Rules of Engagement

Ever wondered about what it would be like to be in an arranged marriage?


Negotiating to be chosen to receive your partner’s dowry?


Hoping that you may actually come to like each other?


Well, that’s pretty much what the new business process is like.


After flirting with one another throughout the pitch process, suddenly, there we are. No one quite sure how it’s all going to work out. Uncomfortably wondering what’s next.


Unlike an arranged marriage, however, we don’t get a lifetime to figure it out.

We have work to do, immediately. It’s pretty much sink or swim.


Maybe we need to sign a pre-nup.


At least some sort of mutually agreed upon Rules of Engagement.


Welcome to Episode 47 of Navigating the Fustercluck—a podcast full of snackable insights to help you navigate the detour-laden world of creativity & marketing.


My name is Wegs, like eggs with a W, joining you from Deaf Mule Studios in Dallas, where we’re going to look at client/agency relationships, which all too often turn into relationshipwrecks. The question is why?


It starts when we get so wound up about winning over prospects and winning their business, that we just hope and wing it when it comes to how we’ll actually work together.


Neither party wants to overshare and reveal things that may become a deal breaker. We convince ourselves that we can work out whatever speed bumps come our way. But that’s not always the case. We’d all be better off if we were honest with one another right from the gitgo.


Which only begs the question, what should those Rules of Engagement look like?


The following are some possible examples.


Client Briefings


Some clients are taking back the briefing process. And they’re excellent at it.

Some struggle to share a document that works. Yet we do nothing about it.

Even when the work suffers.


What can we do about it? What if we talk beforehand. Agreeing on the main points before the client brief becomes the primary blueprint for the work. You can’t count on the agency brief to smooth over all the rough spots.


Can client and agency strategy people learn from writing groups? Trading versions back-and-forth until their thinking is polished?


Also, to make sure that ample time is given to the work, that client brief has to arrive asap.




Most agencies try to keep their clients’ eyes off the work as long as possible, even though according to an AMA conference I attended, it’s proven that more rounds of feedback add to the work more than extra time to create. Personally, I like an tissue session or two early in the process, then more unadulterated time afterwards to grow those directions. It’s when you hold off on feedback that you’re more likely to miss the boat.


Work upfront to determine a feedback process, write it down and uphold it.


Rules of Engagement are a joke if you don’t take them seriously.

Creative Development


Due to an accumulation of unofficial “rules”, the work often stagnates with

do’s & don’ts based more upon personal preference or isolated “consumer feedback”.


These myths warp the reality of the situation and limit our creative exploration, and we don’t even know it.


Somehow, we become convinced that we have to show this or say that or people just won’t get it. But we don’t really know that.


I worked for a car client that insisted that every :30 commercial needed to do 7 separate things and in a particular order, then wondered why the work all looked the same.


What if every creative review the agency is asked to bring one direction that breaks free of these do’s & don’ts? Something that challenges our preconceived notions. Work that gets exposed in testing. Work that teaches us things even if doesn’t hit the bullseye.


That said, every option has to be given an honest effort. No sandbagging so that the agency’s wilder efforts and personal favorites get a better chance to win out.

Together, agencies & clients have to build in some room for serendipity and intuition to work their magic.




Most agencies bemoan that clients lack the faith to take risks. Most clients aren’t in the mood to follow every agency whim.


If we take advantage of technology, often we can test more concepts to see what works before sinking all our money into one direction. If we spend more up front, we should be able to save more money over the long haul.


The Ultimate Decision Maker


Before reaching the Ultimate Decision Maker, work can go through endless hoops and die a death of a thousand cuts, as everyone gets their opportunity to round off the edges of the work before the decider makes her choice.


Or, after hours and hours and weeks and weeks of work, in one fell swoop, this person can wipe out everything. Wasting valuable time and emotional energy.


Not even the best project manager can make up that sort of time.


How can we benefit from the input of the Ultimate Decision Maker without having that person dominate the process?


Have them join an early tissue session.


Agree that the agency has the right to keep alive at least one of its campaigns to test. No unilaterally wiping away all the work, unless agency and client both agree to it.


Engagement & Check-ins


Ever present to a client who loves the work and decides that there’s not enough time for you to present to the next level?


While I’ve known clients with a good sense of creative, there’s rarely anyone better than the agency to present the work. No matter what the time limitations, the agency should at least be on the phone. And with videoconferencing, there’s even less of an excuse not to include the agency. It’s not a lack of trust in your client, it’s a level of respect for those hired to do the storytelling.


Now if I’m a client, I want some direct contact with the creatives and planners. Don’t want everything filtered through Accounts. But these shouldn’t be secret conversations. Accounts should be speaking beforehand and after to their teammates, so they can properly do their jobs. When I headed up $200 million of billings as account guy, I did my best to set up such a system. And it worked. Damn well, I may add. It built up trust between everyone involved. Relieved resentments. And cultivated collaboration. Gotta have the right people, for sure. But that’s what building a strong culture is all about. Right?

Time to Take a Short Breather… (EXHALE.)


…We’re here at Deaf Mule Studios to remind everyone that this is Navigating the Fustercluck. And I’m your host, Wegs. And this is an exploration of agency/client relationships, and how to lay down some rules of engagement.


Poker Faces

Agencies often complain about prospects putting on a poker face. Keeping their real feelings to themselves. And we hate it! Right? Yet, we wear them, too. Don’t we? C’mon, do we really give a true picture of ourselves?


Besides some basically meaningless staffing chart that will be shrunk and re-orged and shrunk and re-orged, time and time again, do we actually talk about how we’ll work together? Hell no.


Look, without firm, yet flexible rules of engagement, you may be entering into an arranged marriage with someone incompatible with you and your culture. And your bottom line. Take your mask off and demand to see their faces in full light as well.


And remember, agree to and write down your rules of engagement. Right off, before you sign on the dotted line.


Well, that about wraps up our 47th episode of Navigating the Fustercluck.


Here from Deaf Mule Studios, I’m your host, Wegs, like eggs with a W, and thanks again for listening in and supporting us. If you have any thoughts on how to establish better rules of engagement, please feel free to reach out to me personally at wegs24x7@gmail.com or NavigatingTheFustercluck.com, where you can find transcripts to this episode and every other of our 46 efforts. Finally, remember, we’re all in this together. Agencies and clients alike. Thanks for committing yourselves to pulling together. Here’s to agencies. Here’s to clients. Here’s to the future.