12/11/2013 04:57 pm ET Updated Feb 10, 2014

Frankenstein Clients?

In advertising and communications, griping about clients is a time-honored pastime. In tone and substance, it falls somewhere between complaining about the weather and whining about an inconsiderate significant other. It does about as much good, too.

Clients! Those unmitigated PITAs (and critical sources of revenue)! They have no idea what they are talking about! The unreasonable demands! The sheer lack of respect for our insights as highly skilled and results-driven strategic communications professionals!

At some agencies, this kind of chatter forms a constant, low-level hum throughout the office -- like a mantra of abdicated responsibility. But if you have clients that are monsters, it could be because you made them that way.

Just like, say, the average radio show's long-time listener/first-time caller, many agencies seem incapable of seeing their role in the situations they find themselves in. Not to get all Dr. Phil about it, but you teach people how to treat you. And agencies most definitely train clients what to expect from them.

Here's how an unhealthy agency-client relationship is generally established.

In a rush to win a client's business, the agency makes huge, sweeping promises. Anything the client desires is totally possible. The only reason why their vision has not already been executed is because nobody can create the kind of results that the agency will deliver, day in and day out, at a moment's notice.

Sign here, please.

The agency may offer some recommendations -- a slight tweak here or there, a different take on the media buy or the campaign roll out, an ancillary audience segment the client might not have considered that will make their ideas even more profitable. But generally, these suggestions fall well within the parameters of the client's wishes. A deal is struck, procurement is agreed upon and the agency is given a list of orders to go execute.

The agency has done nothing to present themselves as anything other than order takers, though, so they have little right to complain. But whatever orders they are given will most likely not return the results the client wants. If they could, they already would have and why would the client need the agency?

Unfortunately, the agency, in a rush for new business, has already convinced the client that everything they want is possible. They are now left holding the bag -- and it is worse than they think. And not just because clients tend to get a little testy when they don't get what they have been promised -- and paid for.

Bad ideas, like other things, roll downhill. As the tension between the agency and the client is passed on to the agency's client team, the damage to an agency can be sizable. Suddenly, talented digital strategists, media mavens, strategic planners, writers and designers -- all hired for their great skill and ability -- are handed the impossible task of executing bad ideas with excellence.

Often this work is called in on tight deadlines, with the kind of sudden changes and course corrections that add the irritation of long hours and scrapped work to the frustration of slaving over projects they know won't drive results. The demotivation that drives can be difficult to compartmentalize. Never underestimate the power of one toxic client relationship to affect the work that is produced for others.

Agencies must recognize that they can't claim to be strategic partners while acting like water boys. A true strategic partnership is established, quite literally, at the first meeting -- if not at the first response to a request for proposal. Certainly, an agency must listen closely and weigh client wants and needs carefully. This is, after all, a business deal they are entering into. But rather than empty praise of a client's proposed methodologies or tactics, an agency should focus initial discussions on the larger results the client would like to achieve.

Then, when overarching objectives are clearly established, the agency can have a substantive and meaningful conversation that draws from their experience and insights to offer strategic solutions to the challenges the client recognizes -- and those they don't. The client lead and team can assess the client's short and long-term business goals and put together tactical and strategic recommendations for both.

This is the kind of conversation that clients need to have with their agencies -- whether they realize it or not. Often, clients and agencies alike do not want what they think they want. A brand, removed or buffered from the volatility of the communications landscape, may look to its own or a competitor's past success and want something similar -- not recognizing that it has quickly grown anachronistic or even inappropriate. The agency, focused on quarterly numbers, may just want revenue and will say anything to get it.

Both are at fault, but in the end, the responsibility rests with the agency. As the saying goes, when two people agree on absolutely everything, one of those people is unnecessary. Agencies must have the conviction and confidence to tell clients what they don't know or don't want to hear from the very start of their relationship.

Not only is this the only way to preserve the integrity of the agency, it is also the only way to build successful long-term agency-client relationships that exceed the expectations of both. From turnover to attrition to morale, agencies that aim only to ingratiate their way into a payday will soon find themselves paying a much higher price, as the monsters they have created inevitably run amok.