Trust But Verify: Ensuring Strong Partnerships

Karen Clyne
Karen Clyne

It’s a given that the best PR and integrated communications work begins with a strong client-agency relationship. The essential ingredients that establish true partnerships between clients and their agencies are trust and exceptional work, with defined outcomes. Equally important is understanding the evolving role of the C-suite, particularly the CMO. What does a CMO need from agency partners and vice versa? In light of dramatic changes in marketing communications, these questions may require new thinking.

Having a thorough understanding of an agency’s capabilities, approach, and methodology contributes to how expectations are set from the start. It’s critical to deliver on your promises and be direct if you think something won’t work as planned.

You also need to gauge the client’s expectations and how those fit with what can actually be achieved. When there is no consistency in expectations, trust diminishes and behavior changes quickly, usually for the worse.

To create long-term relationships, client and agency also should agree on what success looks like. Metrics should be designed to evaluate performance and increase team accountability.

A tightly woven partnership should be designed to produce great work that can lead to sales and revenue. Both client and agency must be committed to real-time feedback to ensure that a genuine effort is being made and strategies always map back to corporate goals and objectives. It’s also about access; access to information, individuals and a solid grasp of the client’s business.

Agencies continually need to demonstrate that they understand clients’ markets and competition, are agile and have genuine enthusiasm for the space. The agency also needs to look beyond what is in reach, and pursue interests on the client’s behalf.

How does this all translate? There’s an opportunity for both client and agency to add value, challenge, disrupt, and build mindshare/marketshare in new and unexpected ways.

Yet building and sustaining a successful relationship is a two-way street and an investment of time, priority and focus. Neither the client nor the agency can own all the effort. It’s about instilling an esprit de corp in the partnership, sharing and challenging ideas, and developing mutual respect.

With that in mind, here are 3 tips for building better relationships:

▶ Weekly check-in meetings with a clearly defined agenda of assessing the more qualitative aspects of the ongoing relationship to keep the conversation clear and open.

▶ Empower the client to address victories and concerns in real-time, up and down the team, so they can be resolved before blossoming into an issue.

▶ Schedule regular brainstorm sessions between the client and agency partner so creative solutions can surface from both sides organically.

Clients who convey the value of their agency partner have much to gain. Agency staff becomes champions of the client’s business. Their passion and creativity inspires, team motivation peaks and stronger results flow to the top and bottom lines.


The value between client and agency stems from a strong foundation. Trust, of course, is the bedrock.

While there are many factors that contribute to the success of a client­-agency relationship, the partnership must remain flexible and evolve, especially as circumstances and business-events change.

The ongoing evaluation of team and program—through agreed-upon reporting and measurement metrics that track execution against goals—will keep accountability levels where they need to be.

High-performing relationships share the characteristics described in this essay, and those are the ones that will have a deep impact and solid results, to boot.

In return, both sides will reap the rewards of a fruitful, trusted partnership.

The ‘High Five’ For Agency-Client Relations

For clients and agencies to work together effectively, it’s essential to adhere to a few guiding principles that will set a strong foundation. Provided are a few observations and thoughts from my PR seat following a casual discussion with industry and agency professionals. The conversation centered on these two questions: What five things do clients need from their agency partner? What five things do agencies need from their client partner? Below is what was shared.

What 5 things do clients need from their agencies?

1. Critical insights inspired by creative thinking. Every client expects critical thinking. Ask questions, listen for answers. Research first, and allow that information and analysis to inform the PR strategies and tactics you set forth.

2. Collaboration. The ability to effectively collaborate and bring fresh ideas to the table is essential. Clients expect rich thinking that’s collective and adds value. Collaboration is partnership. Both parties have a vested interest to create this level of interaction.

3. Top talent. Clients seek agency talent that will set their business apart and contribute to marketing success. Clients want and expect senior agency partners as well as a talent pool that is agile, understands their business, creates breakthrough ideas and solves problems.

4. Expanded skills. High-quality content, paid social media strategies, research and analytics, advocacy marketing; these are the expanded skills clients want to see from their agency partner this year and beyond. By offering new and differentiated skills that address a specific need or pain, the more value is created.

5. Delivery. A well-run program exceeds expectations. Goals and metrics assigned to the campaign are achieved and the results are proof of steps 1-4 outlined above. Delivery is the result of a well integrated, communications machine with top team performance.

What 5 things do agencies need from their clients?

1. Access. Access to information, people, channels, partners, lines of business, product and service information, competitive intelligence. This level of sharing and availability is required in order to gain a full understanding of the client’s business. Clients need to provide this access to ensure the team has every opportunity to absorb the details of a product or initiative and formulate the best strategy.

2. Trusted partnership. The PR pro is an extension of the client team and is an expert. The agency partner has experienced successes and lessons learned along the way; this is all to be leveraged. Trust the expertise and let it work for your business.

3. Integration. Integration with the client team, as well as an integrated approach to communications, will always gain the visibility (and results) demanded of the partnership and program. Set clear expectations on scope and responsibility and allow the agency what it needs to succeed.

4. Real-time feedback. As with all aspects of the client-agency dynamic, expectation setting and feedback is a key aspect of success. Receiving candid commentary builds trust, allows for the opportunity to course correct where needed and establishes strong guidelines. Not only will this strengthen the program work ahead, it keeps both sides accountable.

5. Celebrate. Our work together and the partnership created is worth celebrating, at every step. Let’s face it, along with the love of our craft comes a deep commitment to each other and the business, and its fair share of stress. When we win together, applaud the effort and gear up for the next big thing.                                                                  —K.C.



Karen Clyne, VP, client services at Eastwick. She can be reached at


This article originally appeared in the February 2, 2015 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.