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When the client/agency relationship becomes a battleground

Hong Kong brands and advertisers have an unenviable task when selecting agencies for collaboration. The field is crowded and not every partnership works well. Some match-ups are so ill-suited, they prevent any success, and can cause long-term schisms between the two parties. Simon Yuen speaks with agency veterans to discover their pain points and how they overcome potential conflict.


It’s common sense that not every relationship works well. No matter how big or small a project is, a joint effort is sometimes a curse to both the agency and the brand.

Brands may be aggravated about spending large wads of money, but receiving poor results. While for agency management, the threat of a team of unsatisfied and unhappy employees faced with demanding clients may be a recipe for sub-standard ideas and executions, and perhaps, a prelude to a future mass exodus.

No room to wiggle

Plenty of international brands set their sights on Hong Kong and Greater China. They establish a branch here to cater to the needs of the market. But they may be stuck in the motions of using a universal approach, which is sometimes inapplicable to the local market.

“From my experience, there are a lot of international brands not giving their branches enough autonomy to execute localised marketing strategies and approaches,” says Ricky (pseudonym), the director of a local independent creative agency.

He explains some brands are only looking for comments from external parties, and also often assign a junior to brief clients.

“Obviously, this little boy has no autonomy to decide anything and is only responsible for liaising with both parties. But it’s disrespectful of agencies,” he elaborates.

Asked whether there’s a solution to the problem, he thinks that the underlying issue (how the entire industry thinks and works) makes it perhaps too big a task to tackle.

In recent years, international brands have adopted centralised approaches. Until they realise it’s not an effective way to implement marketing strategies, there is little hope to reverse the situation. But agencies can still avoid this issue.

“Agencies and brands have to know each others’ expectations. Agencies’ managements have to turn down unsuitable clients when necessary because your colleagues will literally be ‘burnt out’ if they are required to handle bad or unwanted projects.”

The right choice of client

Every agency needs to expand its client base for greater exposure and opportunities. However, some agencies go to the extreme of attending every available pitch and accepting every offered commission without a second thought. The end result of which is usually a heavier burden on the creative talent – to the potential detriment of their quality of work.

“Budgeting is crucial, but it shouldn’t be the only factor to run an agency,” says Aiden (pseudonym), managing director of an international agency.

“You may hire a big team of graduates to do tedious work, but it could be harmful to the agency’s reputation. Sometimes the clients even don’t know what they want.”

There could also be an incompatibility between clients and agencies. For agencies, Aiden thinks management has to be honest in explaining to clients what it can actually offer. It’s a great way to minimise frustration and to educate clients.

“A good agency must safeguard its reputation. You can just earn respect from clients through the quality of work. If the agency matches the client, I think it would be possible for the creative talent to make an extra effort,” Aiden says.

The mysterious magicians of PR

According to public relations theorists James E. Grunig and Todd Hunt, public relations can be defined as, “the management of communication between an organisation and its publics”. However, according to our interview subjects, some in the industry may want to familiarise themselves with the finer details before engaging an agency.

“There are a lot of clients [who] cannot tell the differences between advertising and public relations,” says Eddy (pseudonym), a director of an independent public relations agency.

“We are just here to help them build up brand awareness. We do not drive sales.”

Though the roles are somewhat more malleable than they once were, PR primarily focuses on communicating with the public and media, while advertising is about promoting products and services with an aim to encourage customers to buy. “I always say that we are a consultant, not a magician. But, as an agency, we can put ourselves into their shoes to tailor our services to different needs. For example, a one-size-fits-all media pitching approach is far from satisfactory. Know who you are talking to, and tell them a suitable angle,” he says.

Without some basic knowledge of public relations, some brands may have faulty expectations and simply fail to brief their agencies effectively. Eddy concludes: “The better we know our clients and media, the easier our lives will be.”


This article was produced for the April issue of Marketing Magazine. For more features, and other magazine-exclusive content from this and upcoming issues, you can subscribe to receive your print copy here or can read our digital version in its entirety here.

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