The other side of the coin: how agencies perceive client-side marketers

Samuel Brealey
5 min readFeb 28, 2020


Cost cutting, time pressures and bad briefing, collected from anonymous sources, including long term agency staff and those who have gone from client side to agency and back again this article is a no holds barred look into some of the consistent issues that arise between agencies and clients.

The reason for this article is that I feel marketers often get away with a bit too much blaming.

Client-side marketers are very quick to call for the beheading of their agencies, we see harsh comments made about effectiveness versus efficiency and the blame is so often landed at the revolving agency door.

In a bizarre Stockholm Syndrome turn of events, even agencies themselves are quick to point the finger. Look at the response to the recent mouldy Burger King advert. Plenty of damning for the creative work itself, but what about the people who signed it off?

You guessed it, the client-side marketers. To make this clear I’ve seen both sides of the coin. I’ve been client-side and worked for agencies as a marketer. As have many of the people I interviewed for this article, I purposefully interviewed those who a vast amount of experience from small agencies to big agencies to search for the common themes.

This article is not an indictment of marketers but an attempt to help them see through the fog. Marketers continue to pile on expectations of agencies, in the most desperate cases marketers act merely as middlemen and expect agencies to not only deliver creative work but essentially retrofit strategic work for an entire business.

This is problematic for marketers and agencies for two reasons. Marketers are uniquely positioned to represent their business and the customers of the businesses they work for, that is what they are supposed to do. However, agencies try hard to fill this gap when it’s not there but the truth is they are not marketers who are in the trenches.

You end up with marketers reducing themselves to middle managers, which makes everyone else question why they are even needed. And agencies stretch themselves too thinly and focus on the wrong things which frankly they are not often capable of doing. Despite the best of intentions.

The first step to recovery, is recognising there is a problem.

“the client and agency relationship is broken.”

If marketers are to get the best out of their agencies, they first need to learn how to communicate. Both marketers and agencies need to move away from the politics of fear and blame culture. And that all starts with how speaking clearly and setting the groundwork. Among the responses I received was a consistent reference to briefing. In fact, almost all respondents mentioned this thorny issue.

“They brief badly, don’t appreciate the skills agency folk have, and have unrealistic expectations. Virtually all campaigns have retro-fitted KPIs to show success.”

“Time pressures now pretty profound meaning even brief writing is outsourced.”

Briefing is a process that must be done and it’s not something that can be covered in a phone call or a quick email. That sounded like a joke, but it really isn’t. An IPA study they found that almost 50% of creative agencies received only a verbal brief from their client-side marketers.

I’m not going to lecture other marketers on how to brief, because they really should already know how to do that. I will say please read that IPA study, twice over, and learn how to brief.

Same goes for any agency staff out there. Download it and throw it at your clients the next time they ask for a “quick chat” about that £5,000,000 campaign that doesn’t even have a proper brief. The job of an agency is not to fill that gaps that a marketer hasn’t done because they probably won’t be able to.

The lack of briefing leads nicely into the next issue, that again, was reported separately by multiple sources.

“(client-side marketers are) single discipline specialists who’ve been promoted because they understand process and politics. They’re hopelessly out of their depth”

“And the worst clients are the ones that let the internal audience, become the only audience they care about.”

This is a damning comment on the general skill level of marketers. There are far too many who simply aren’t trained, have very little breadth of experience and think their client-side ideas and opinions are the best thing since sliced bread.

As we see more and more ‘digitally native’ marketers promoted into leadership roles we need to be cautious, particularly if they have no other skills. Being a digital comms manager is one thing, being a CMO is entirely another and the skill set is far broader and more demanding. There may be argument against this but it’s important to remember that we don’t know what we don’t know. That’s why training is so important. It helps marketers stay objective. There is a fundamental need for training, and it can be done on the job as well. Whether it’s through the Chartered Institute of Marketing or Mark Ritson’s Mini MBA. There really is no excuse not to.

Too many times we see Marketers judging agency work using a S.S.O.O model (Sample size of one). This always comes back to the training and briefing problems.

Marketers need to accept that the judge of their work is their customer, not themselves. The marketer’s job is to understand their employer or client’s needs but also the needs of their customers so they can give something useful to the creative agency to inform that creative work.

Marketers are supposed to have an idea of who their customers are. Otherwise we end up with woke-washed, millennial, generation z non-sense that is just pulled out of thin air or off some stupid blog post. It’s not that hard to get out of the office and meet real people, even simple focus groups can give amazing input to form a cohesive brief. If you start with assumptions, you truly have nothing so get out and learn something.

The reason this is so important is that an agency can’t be expected to make brilliant creative with their ‘brainstormed-in-30-minutes’ ideas. Agencies are there to create the ideas and marketers are there to brief, inform and inspire them to do great work. Agencies can’t be expected to do the jobs of marketers and nor should they, that is after all what marketers are for.

Otherwise marketers are asking to be made redundant, not just from their roles but it also starts to bring the whole discipline into question. We must fight against that.

A final comment, this time a positive one that marketers need to remember.

“A dream agency for most would be one that helped navigate the maze of a business”

And the reality is that they should be partners. Plenty of the respondents want to be deeply involved with their clients so they can deliver the best work possible. Creative types are curious people, they want to learn and build things. Most marketers are not creatives, their job is to help agencies to help them deliver great creative.

And like all good relationships, there is clear understanding of the rules and how they work. Mutual cooperation and respect are a two way street that agencies and marketers need to walk together.

Give the agencies a hand, pick up the phone tomorrow and ask them what a marketer can do to make their work better. Because that is exactly what I have done with this article, I am as guilty as everyone else. But at least I’m now aware of that and now, so are you.



Samuel Brealey

Better Marketing, means better business.