June 9, 2019

Last week, I was invited to give the keynote address at the Digital Media Awards (Kenya), an event curated by Social Media Week, Nairobi.
In attendance was a plethora of digital agencies, some of their clients as well as some digital media and platforms like Twitter and Eskimi.

The 100M question is, what makes a great client-agency relationship? I have worked on both sides of the coin, well kind off. When I launched my digital marketing career at 98.4 Capital FM in 2007, I turned the digital media division into an agency (Capital Digital Media) within the media house. We had clients whom we serviced with digital marketing campaigns, built assets for them, from websites/landing pages, to banners and other creative needs. Big shout out to Dorothy Ooko who was at Nokia East Africa and became our first client for a multi-market, multi-lingual digital campaign.

Due to the nature of our business strategy at Capital Digital Media, we competed with the traditional agencies for clients, and this didn’t sit well with many of them! We had to tread carefully with them because we still relied on them for radio advertising revenue from the same clients we were pitching our digital business to! Talk about awkward!

After 6 years at Capital Digital Media, I moved to Coca-Cola Central East and West Africa and officially became “the client”. Over night, those traditional agencies that we sometimes clashed with when I was at Capital Digital Media, were now faced with me, the client that was running a digital agency pitch for Coca-Cola’s digital business in East Africa. You are probably thinking that I had the last laugh, but life isn’t that easy. Through the mentorship and leadership of my manager then, the great Judy Kairo who was head of Integrated Marketing and Communications and also had agency experience, I learned how best to navigate the client-agency relationship, no matter what side of the table you are seating. The phrase “Don’t burn your bridges” has never held so true!

Ultimately, at the end of the day, it’s about the business bottom line and not your ego! This declaration rings very true for me, “Clients get the work they deserve”! This statement is true whether you think of a positive or negative work outcome. Off course we all desire positive outcomes – successful campaigns, meeting KPIs and even the recognition that comes with it via industry awards.

Over the last 10 years I have worked with agencies all over sub-Saharan Africa, mainly in digital and technology. What I have found is that to consistently get positive outcomes, a combination of 3 things is needed. Focus, Fun and Friendships.

So here is my recipe to make that great cocktail.

1. Focus is about getting clarity on what the desired outcome of the client-agency relationship is and then staying true to meeting that outcome. This is the business objective that we are all gunning for. They key here is to stay focused on the prize. Break down the overall goal into bite-sized milestones or accomplishments and stay on the path to meet them. We all know it wont be a smooth ride. Creative ideas will get rejected, budgets will be slashed, there will be scope creep, but stay focused on what it will take to meet the ultimate goal.

2. Friendship – we spend so much time at work and with our agency partners it would be a disservice not to build real relationships out of them. Furthermore, genuine friendships mean that we will have each other’s back! I’m not suggesting that we must all be friends, hold hands and sing kumbaya and hang out every weekend! I’m sure the last thing you want to do is be all up in your client’s/agency’s personal life after a tough work week. What I mean is, as human beings, we are social beings and in order to get better output, we should work in an environment of trust and respect. These two things are the essence of a genuine friendship. Then again, this can transcend into deeper connections so that we are not always work focused.

A few months ago I lost my father in law and I informed my agency teams (via Whats app) that I would be taking some time off. I received many condolence messages from the group. However, one particular agency person reached out to me and condoled me whilst sharing her own experience losing her father only recently. I felt terrible because I didn’t know she had just suffered the painful loss of losing a parent and I had obviously not shown any condolence towards her. Now this is someone I have worked with and known for many years so I felt horrible. It also made me question my relationship with agency personnel, if I was truly being a genuine friend to them. As I am now self-aware of my shortcomings, I have resolved to work on building genuine friendships with my agency partners.

A more positive story, a few years ago I was planning a milestone birthday party that would take place at the end of the year. Through out the year I would randomly mention it during working sessions with my agency, and the stress I was going through in figuring out how to execute this party. The Account director at the agency realized I was seriously procrastinating on planning this birthday party, as I had no solid plan, venue, etc. She quickly when into action, recruited a creative and came back with the idea an execution plan, which I loved! Needless to say the party was a success, and I couldn’t help that notice almost half of the attendees were my agency peeps! Now that’s an example of true friendship.

3. FUN – If it stops being fun, then move on! Whilst working on marketing campaigns, it wont always be fun, there will be tough days, long hours. We need to make a conscious effort to have fun together- agency and client. Fun includes recognising (publicly) good work, fun includes making serious moments light-hearted, fun includes socialising together.

Recently, I had to have a tough conversation with the agency on a performance related matter that would affect the way we compensated them. It was such a tense conversation as matters related to performance or compensation even if factual and objective, are very sensitive. The meeting ended a few minutes to lunchtime and I offered to buy the team lunch but they declined. I can understand, their feathers had been plucked and they needed to regroup. Later that evening I got a call from the agency lead and she asked if we could get together with the team for a social at the bar. The team had regrouped and decided we needed to have fun together as the next step to moving on. That was not only very mature of them, but also future-focused. Needless to say we had a good social evening that removed the tension we had experienced earlier in the day.

The agency-client cocktail is a delicate balance but when infused with the ingredients of fun, friendship and laser-sharp focus, a great outcome is guaranteed.

Do you have client-agency experiences that we can learn from? Drop a comment below and please maintain confidentiality on client/agencies as needed. Thanks


  1. Collins - June 9, 2019 at 8:46 pm - Reply

    The part about a meeting on failure by agency to meet certain KPIs, I was in such on Thursday last week on behalf of our young agency. We had not achieved certain targets, it definitely impacted on how we were to be compensated. It was a tense 3 hour meeting. Eventually, we lost a small part of the agreed compensation but came out with a better deal adjusted from the earlier agreed. Also, picked our lessons and we still have the client.

  2. Karen - June 9, 2019 at 9:21 pm - Reply

    Key things i have learnt in building a great Client- Agency relationship is trust, openness and team spirit.

    You need to first make sure they feel like they are part of the team, which is the environment you will create by how you treat them, respond to them and
    listen to their views as you work together.

    You need to inspire them with purpose.I have been in some meetings where the client shouts at the agency constantly, using a more top down approach which rarely yields positive outcomes..thus re iterating what you said above, clients getting the work they deserve.

    When you create an open environment, you are able to get to know the key pain points/weakness or issues you need to solve or address prior to it exploding.

  3. Doug Odhiambo - June 10, 2019 at 7:00 am - Reply

    Great article. This is why I tell younger people when they ask me that employment is a crucial part of their careers. It’s almost impossible, if you’ve never been employed, to start a business and be successful at it. Simply because you need the networks, let alone the experience, that employment gives you.

    And if you’re the kind of person that takes the initiative – if you can be bold enough to innovate for your employer, like taking a whole department and improving it then you’re almost guaranteed success one day when you open your own shop.

    Kudos to you, Waithera!

  4. Wavi - June 10, 2019 at 8:08 am - Reply

    Spot on. Client Agency Relationship must be worked on. Alot of effort and commitment from both sides is needed. Long hours are inevitable but in the end, the work should be able to speak for itself.

  5. Nasho Mapulanga - June 10, 2019 at 8:39 am - Reply

    Brilliant insight, thank for sharing. Ever so true.
    I have 10years Agency experience working @ Y&R. Last year, I moved to Ogilvy where I am now heading the business. I have realised that most of my peers back in the day @ Y&R are now the Marketing Heads for most of the brands in the market… similar lessons about not burning bridges are ever so true, and you can Imagine the relationships built over the 10years have become an easy fit. Lesson here is always keeping ones network refreshed…
    I have also learnt that good clients are not born, they are made, through our good relationships – Agency – client, we become family.

  6. Amy - June 10, 2019 at 9:56 pm - Reply

    Love it!

  7. Tracy Humplick - June 11, 2019 at 8:47 am - Reply

    Waithera, thank you! We need more articles like this out there. I for one have always been an advocate of building and growing any relationship (agency-client, client-client, agency-agency) We get so caught up in the runnings of the business i.e. KPIs, Turn around times, Pitches and Awards that we forget the very fact that we are dealing with human beings not robots. I will make it a personal goal to be more mindfull of the three aspects you talked about -Fun, Focus & Friendship.

  8. Derrick - June 11, 2019 at 10:11 am - Reply

    These three things Focus, Fun & Friendship make it work for me too and “Clients get the work they deserve”.

    This is an Amazing read Waithera..

  9. Agnes - June 11, 2019 at 11:18 am - Reply

    Great read Waithera

  10. Sialouise Shayo - June 11, 2019 at 12:34 pm - Reply

    Love it. Very insightful.
    Mine is to always put myself in my agency partner’s shoes. Especially during challenging times. I love your example with the KPI based conversation. It’s an excellent example of how to be mindful while staying focused.

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