Four things marketing agencies don’t know about their clients

How to empathise and strengthen your relationship

Rob Voase
9 min readJan 10, 2022
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

In a meeting with a former boss at a marketing agency, I made a throw away comment that most marketing leads at clients spend very little time actually marketing because of other responsibilities.

This caused some surprise on her part and it got me wondering that if someone as experienced and talented as her didn’t know that, then what else don’t agencies understand about clients and how would that affect their perceptions?

Luckily, my twenty-three year marketing career has been split 75:25 in favour of client-side over agency-side. So this is my attempt to use that experience to give agency people the inside scoop and in turn maybe help them build better relationships with their clients.


My client-side experience is Telecoms (where there are parallels to finance and utilities), Retail, Video games, Vets and whatever the hell you describe Disney as. I have never worked in FMCG or B2B so can’t speak to those worlds.

1. Most Marketing Leads spend a minority of their time actually marketing

Photo by Kevin Ku on Unsplash

There are time sinks client-side that take you away from actually being a marketer. Especially as a marketing lead. I have pulled them into three main areas:

  • Developing your team
  • Managing upwards
  • Budgeting and Forecasting.

Developing your team

As Head of Marketing at a UK retailer, I had seven direct reports covering Brand, CRM, Loyalty, Insight, Social, Operations, and Design Studio. All told that covered about 30 people.

It adds up to an enormous amount of time spent in one to ones, co-ordinating the team, feeding down from the C-suite about this weeks latest panic (real or imagined) that we need to react to, dealing with grievances, etc. Even if you delegate hard you can’t escape this and neither should you. Developing, supporting and helping your team should be your main priority.

Managing upwards

More exhausting is managing upwards.

Explaining how you’re going to react to the latest so-called “crisis”, fending off daft marketing ideas, managing and justifying budgets, and constantly trying to prove that the money being spent on marketing is worth it.

All in a company that is biased for action where even if doing nothing is the right course of action, it’s not the right course of action.

Budgeting and Forecasting

When you own a budget it takes a huge amount of time and effort to keep on top of what has been spent, what remains to be spent, and how that tracks versus forecast.

You’ll also have to re-forecast every 20 minutes, showing the value for money you are getting (which can be tough for longer term marketing work — we’ll touch on that later.)

And let’s not forget doing a new budget for the next financial year where you’ll painstakingly create a realistic budget only to be told: “That’s too high. Make it add up to this number.”


It can be very stressful — especially for marketers not particularly au fait with numbers.

What does that mean for agency partners?

The time a Marketing Lead has to actually think strategically can be laughably small. The amount of time they have to spend working with agencies is an even smaller percentage of that.

The outcome of this is frustrated agencies who can’t get as much face time as they would like. You are a relatively small part of their world when they can be a huge part of yours.

All I ask is that you remember their time pressures and be patient where you can. Know that they really, REALLY, would rather be actually solving marketing problems with you.

2. Short-term financial performance rules.

Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash

At the weekly trading meeting at a retailer at which I worked, the heads of each department would look at the previous weeks performance and would have to explain what happened to generate that performance — good or bad.

For a telecoms company, it was a monthly budget re-forecast and a panic before every quarterly shareholder announcement if weren’t coming in on our numbers.

Everyone at a certain level knew those numbers, the direction of those numbers and a rough stab at the drivers of those numbers. They would then go and feed that back down to their teams.

Because that’s what really matters client-side. Not purpose, not brand awareness or recognition, not clicks or likes.

This creates a tension for Marketing (and by proxy for agencies)— how do they show their contribution in these short, ruthlessly commercial cycles but also maintain one eye on the long term?

See the Forest. Not the trees.

I am sure you are aware of seminal marketing book “The Long and Short of it” by Les Binet and Peter Field. It posits that there is a 60:40 golden ratio of investment between Long-term and Short-term marketing activity (though this can vary by industry among other things.)

The long-term is largely about creating future demand through brand-building tactics that create Mental awareness of the brand. The Short term is about harvesting current demand through sales activation and conversion focused tactics.

I once calculated that ratio for a retailer I worked for. It was a startling 13:87. And I would wager we were not alone.

That skewed ratio is a function of the short term fixation with numbers and the need for a quick ROI. Marketers know it is ultimately damaging for the brand but convincing an organisation run on short cycles is another ball game.

What does that mean for agency partners?

Agencies can really help marketing in this battle for two planning horizons.

A. Just surface the concept of the golden ratio. When I presented my findings on how overly biased to the short term our budget was, there was a lot of consternation and we were able to move the dial a touch.

You don’t even need to get to 60:40. Just getting at consistent 30% of spend into long would be a win in a lot of cases.

B. Use your expert authority status. Agencies can have more authority than the client’s marketing teams. You aren’t seen every day. You have the ability to talk with authority about concepts a lot of clients have no idea about. You have reference points and case studies you can bring to bear. That can all help bring heft to the message.

C. Recommend to Marketing that they bring Finance into the marketing process. I thought this perspective from Boots CFO Michael Snape was pertinent:

“(The CMO) and the team don’t just come and have conversations when they’re asking for more investment or it’s budget time. They actually spend a huge amount of time with me and other members of the exec team… to really explain what they want to achieve and why. So there is a real push to get buy in,” he explained. “You see and feel their excitement. They really want you to get it.”

3. They’ll be customer first. Unless the numbers are off.

Photo by olieman.eth on Unsplash

Every company I have worked for has had within its stated values something about putting the customer first. Whether that is termed as “Customer First”, “Passion for Customers”, or “a Customer-centric approach”, they all posit the same thing — that the customer should come first in relation to what a brand chooses to do or not do.

And yet so often it’s proven to be utter bollocks. Especially when a business is presented with a difficult financial situation.

Temptation arises if they might be able to generate incremental revenue from something that is not customer-centric in order to meet short-term shareholders, owner or analysts expectations.

I’ve seen £1 added to the line rental of older mobile tariffs just to hit a quarterly revenue number. I’ve seen a business try to nudge Credit card customers who are paying off their debts to stop doing so as it makes the company less money. I’ve seen unwanted extras added to a highly sought after product to rack up extra margin.

All those businesses had a 'customer centric' value in there somewhere.

In reality customer centricity is about what you won’t do for money. Bill Bernbach, one of the founders of global Ad agency DDB, is quoted to have said:

“More and more I have come to the conclusion that a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money”.

What does that mean for agency partners?

If a client wants to do something you can’t really stop them. But you can try and hold them to the standards they set.

That credit card example actually happened to me whilst agency-side and we did our job and pushed back on it. To their credit the senior client nixed the program so all ended well.

There is some imperative from the agency to keep the client on the righteous path. Don’t be afraid to speak up — especially if you position it as promoting the customer perspective with evidence to back yourselves up.

4. They know what the right thing to do is but feel constantly thwarted

Photo by Morgane Perraud on Unsplash

A lot of the time client side marketers feel thwarted. Most marketers know the problems they have, why they exist and why that probably won’t change in the near future.

They know they’re a function of legacy technology that no-one wants to sign off replacing because it’ll cost a fortune and cause major disruption.

Or maybe it’s because of product silos within the business that make customer centric thinking very hard.

Or it’s because their data is terrible — incomplete, inaccurate, split over a million databases or refreshed infrequently.

Or the KPIs for customer facing operations (Call centres, Retail stores) don’t create the right behaviours from a CX perspective — maybe a call centre is compensated for the speed of a call rather than quality.

Or their budgets just got slashed by a CFO who thinks marketing is nothing more than a cost centre.

What does that mean for agency partners?

As a client there is nothing more annoying than an agency, having not taken the time to understand these factors and the commercial imperatives in play, swanning in and saying “Well obviously you should do blah, blah, blah.”

Yes. We know. We’d love to but that’s not reality.

The key lesson is know your client’s business and industry. When the Agency Management Institute asked Chief Marketing Officers, business owners and Directors of Marketing what they wanted from their agencies, this was the #1 response: “Industry knowledge”.*

Take the time to learn the constraints, objectives, and politics your client works under. Make sure that your suggested strategies and tactics fit and work within that landscape.

But at the same time inspire change too. At an agency I worked at, we answered the brief based on what was possible but also suggested what they could do if we could resolve some of the issues. It gives Marketing some leverage to make changes to whatever is thwarting them.

The Bottom Line

Unless you work client-side you can never really know what pressures and difficulties they face, but I hope that this has been a useful window into why clients act like they do.

The short version is this. Take the time to understand:

  1. how they make money
  2. their industry dynamics
  3. their constraints
  4. their frustrations, hopes and motivations.

If you can crack those you will prove a hugely valuable ally for them in their fight to push their marketing agenda and deliver work you can all be proud of.

I am a Senior Marketing Consultant at with nearly 20 years of experience across both the client and agency side. I have applied my knowledge across brands as diverse as Vodafone, McDonald’s, Volkswagen, Westpac, and GAME.

If you liked this article please check out:



Rob Voase

Over twenty years of marketing experience in big brands, small brands, agency & client-side. I’ve worked in Australia and the UK and still miss Sydney daily.