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Do you know how you can improve client-agency relationships to scale faster? Joe Koufman has worked in the agency world for over 20 years. He was actually a guest on the podcast during its first year. In 2014, he decided to use his experience in marketing, business development, and management to create Setup, a company that works to connect brands and marketing agencies by helping companies find the right agency to meet their needs at a given time. Today he returned to the podcast to discuss what clients look for in an agency, how does a successful client-agency relationship looks like, why you shouldn't be afraid to challenge your clients, and more.

3 Golden Nuggets

  1. What do clients look for in an agency? Setup has set out to really understand client-agency relationships and asked several companies what are some of the things that matter to them in their agency partner. They found that most clients really don't care about things like proximity, size of the agency, or awards. Clients were mostly looking for chemistry, transparency, good communication, and creativity. As to the things they wished agencies knew, they wanted agencies to be more strategic partners. They also wished agencies had a better understanding of their business and that they understood that not all ideas could be executed.
  2. Building better agency-client relationships. It was curious that, when asked about what they wished to improve in the client-agency relationship, both parties seemed to ask for the same things. The reality is that, in order to have a good client-agency relationship, they need to have shared goals, sharing common KPIs. And, of course, there must also be a high level of transparency between client and agency, even some vulnerability in terms of what they are sharing. A big frustration for clients was when agencies claimed to be good at something that they are not. Agencies have to set clear expectations and be completely transparent and candid about what they do well and what they don't do well.
  3. Don’t be afraid of tension. “You’re not looking for harmony,” Joe says, “you’re looking for tension in the relationship.” Don’t strive to be your client’s buddy. You can be buddies with your sales rep, but never buy anything from them. The idea is that you push the client and bring them an insight that's not obvious to them. Get them to agree that there’s an issue in their organization and then present your solution and the best option. Remember that usually, clients don’t hire an agency because they want order takers. They hire an agency because there’s an unmet need. “The byproduct of being a real challenger,” Joe assures, “is relationship.”

Sponsors and Resources

Gusto: Today's episode is sponsored by Gusto, an all-in-one people platform for payroll, benefits, HR where you can unify your data. Gusto automatically applies your payroll taxes and directly deposits your team's paychecks, freeing you up to work on your business. Head over to to enjoy an exclusive offer for podcast listeners.


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The Byproduct of Being a Real Challenger is Better Client-Agency Relationships

Jason: [00:00:00] What's up, agency owners? Got another exciting show for you. One of my good friends from Atlanta that was actually back on the podcast the first year we've done this. And we're going to talk about building client relations so you can scale your agency faster. So let's go ahead and get into the show.

Hey, Joe. Welcome back to the show.

Joe: [00:00:27] Hey! Thank you. It's been a long time since I've been on this show.

Jason: [00:00:31] Yeah, I mean… seven years? And that back with the intro in the, in the video with the cup. I was like, oh, I'm here.

Joe: [00:00:42] We, uh, we haven't aged a bit in seven years.

Jason: [00:00:45] No, I've, I've just gotten a lot more gray in my beard. Um, a lot more gray. Yeah. No, you've always been kind of peppered. I think…

Joe: [00:00:56] Yeah. Just more so.

Jason: [00:00:57] Exactly. Well, um, tell everybody who you are and tell them a little bit about your, uh, your background of working with the agencies.

Joe: [00:01:05] Sure. So I'm Joe Kaufman, I'm the founder and CEO of Setup and we are marketing matchmakers, meaning that we connect brands and marketing agencies together.

So from an agency perspective, um, what that usually means is that we connect agencies with potential clients. From a client perspective, they look at us as a search consultant or a, an augment of their team to help them find agencies that can fill gaps in either capacity. Like they don't have enough arms and legs to do the work they need to do. Or capability, they're missing some capability that an agency could fill.

Jason: [00:01:43] Very cool. Awesome. Well, let's, let's kinda talk about what people are listening in for is like building better relationships and, you know, and re-engaging. You know their client year after year, you know, because you, you've worked for, you know, many agencies in the past before doing the matchmaking service.

We've had a lot of those guests on from Hill Meyer. It's, uh, you know, uh, Sims and those guys. So I guess let's, let's get into that. How can agencies build better relationships to scale better?

Joe: [00:02:15] We, we think a lot about that agency-client relationship. And to that point, we actually do an annual marketing relationship survey.

Um, Ad Age actually picked it up, uh, earlier this year, which was pretty cool. But basically what we wanted to do is understand what the reasons are that clients look for agencies. Why do they hire agencies? What do they expect out of their agency relationships? And, um, and we also actually did an event earlier this year, where we were calling it group therapy for the agency-client relationship.

And we add a bunch of agency people and a bunch of clients on a Zoom call and we talked through that relationship. Um, you know, as I mentioned before, the clients often look for agency support because of an issue with capacity or an issue with a key capability that they're missing. And, um… That survey that we do annually to understand that relationship, we ask clients, what are some of the things that matter to you in your agency partner? When you're looking for a new agency partner.

And the things we didn't hear, the things that came up really low on the list were things like proximity. You know, I don't care if my agency is down the street. Particularly in the days of a pandemic I really don't care where my agency's located physically. I don't care so much about the size of my agency. Smaller agencies can do amazing work for larger clients.

Um, I don't care so much about what awards they’ve won. Just agencies often… Yeah. Agencies often think awards are important. And for some clients, they really do care, but most don't care about…

Jason: [00:04:00] Well, those clients are idiots. Did I ever tell you that…? Did I ever tell you the story of, um, we were pitching Mellow Mushroom and, uh, they… If you've ever been to their office, it's like in the middle of nowhere and they were joking around about oh, here's a map to find her office. And like, I want you to show you how, how, how I want you to show me how creative you are.

So I showed up at their office in full camping gear. Like they thought I was a homeless person. And like I had like the portfolio in this bag… like, and they were like, we loved it, but we're going with… You mentioned in the pre-show. I won't, I won't bash them now. Um, so I won't bash them on the show.

But they were like, we're going with so-and-so because they won a ton of Addy awards and we want to win an Addy award. And I tell them, I go, I'm never eating your pizza ever again.

Joe: [00:04:56] You don't want to sell pizza. You just want to win awards.

Jason: [00:04:59] Yeah, I've never eaten your pizza.

Joe: [00:05:01] That's right. You, you reminded me of a time that I wore an entire cowstume to the Chick-fil-A headquarters. Um, and my goal was to not smile the entire time. I was just going to be deadpan serious. Everybody would cut off pointing at me when I was walking through the lobby and walking through the… The women that check you in at the front desk did not think I was funny.

Uh, and in fact, the client told me two or three times during the meeting to please keep my utters underneath the table. He said he found them a little bit disturbing.

Jason: [00:05:33] What you should have done is started messing with your utter… utters.

Joe: [00:05:38] I, I may or may not have done that. Maybe that was the reason he said that. But, um, I did think it would have been really fun to get some camelbacks or something and have like chocolate milk come out of one and strawberry milk and vanilla and whatever. But…

Jason: [00:05:53] And then could be like just tap me.

Joe: [00:05:57] Right. But it was an innovative idea for a client. I mean, dispensing cow milk dispensing cow on site. Uh, but anyway, so, uh, we, we found through the survey that, you know, those, those things are less important to clients. The awards, location, size, et cetera. What they really care more about is some of the soft and intangible things that the client can do well.

Like… I'm sorry that the agency can do well. Like, um, they're looking for chemistry and relationship and transparency and, and good communication. And they're looking for, um, you know, creativity, uh, th, there are not… Many of those things are things that are within an agency's control. Um, and you know, we did, I mentioned, we did an event where we asked the questions, what things… What do you wish agencies knew? You know, we ask clients, what do you wish agencies knew?

And they said things like we wish they were more strategic partners for us. We wish that our agency would help us navigate some of the bureaucratic red tape within our organization. Um, we want them to act as an extension of our team. We want them to I understand that not all ideas can be executed. Sometimes agencies come with these big glossy, creative ideas, but there's just not realistic for, for this client.

And they wished that the agency would just understand their business better. Um, we built a series of resources for clients, um, in our resources section of our site.

And, you know, there's a complete guide to finding a marketing agency in there. There's a scorecard in there that... There's two versions of the scorecard. One version is if the client is trying to decide between three or four different agencies, how do you choose in a pitch kind of situation? But the other scorecard is made for agency or for clients to evaluate their agency on an ongoing basis to see if they still are feeling the love.

Jason: [00:08:05] Yeah. And what are some of those…? What are some of those questions that the clients are actually looking at?

Joe: [00:08:12] Yeah. I mean, how, how creative is agency? How, how innovative are they in terms of, you know, finding new ways of doing things? How good is their, their, their communication? How good is their project management, their service?

Um, you know, uh, uh, how are, how tech savvy are they? Even if they're not a technology agency, or, you know, a CRM agency or something like that. You still want to know that they're leveraging the best tools and that kind of thing. Um, and you know, we do it like a scorecard. I mean, they can rate each category and section and then decide is this agency is still the right one for me in the future?

Um, the flip side of that conversation that we had about what, uh, you know, clients wish agencies knew. We asked the agency people what they wish clients knew. And I'm sure some of your listeners will, you know, feel some of these things. They, they wish that the clients would be patient and answer also, but also answer all the questions that you ask.

When, when an agency asks a lot of questions, it's usually to uncover some insights so that they can deliver value for the client. They wish that the client would lean on the agencies for their expertise in a bigger way. They wished that the client would provide all of the crucial information upfront.

I think sometimes there's a hesitancy for a client to open the kimono and give you everything as an agency. But if you truly want your agency to be a partner and not a vendor, then you gotta be really. You know, up front about all of the, the, um, information that might be useful.

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Well, you, you, you know what, like… I'm glad you're going over this part. Because if I had one of my agency clients go to me going, and I wished they could do this, I'm like, well, hey, dumb ass, they could. You're taking on the wrong prospect.

Um, you know, I, I did a video, I think back around when you were back on the show, and I remember it was the worst background. I looked like Oompa Loompa in it. And the title of it was like, there's no such thing as a bad agency client, there's only a bad prospect or a bad process. And if you don't have the right, if you don't have the right qualification to check, if that prospect is legit or going to be a nightmare client, or it was going to be good. Because like, you've been on so many pitches, like I have, right?

Including the cow utter or, or the campaign…

Joe: [00:11:54] That, that was planning for cow appreciation day. So it was very appropriate to wear a cowstume.

Jason: [00:12:00] Of course, of course. I mean, right? So we've been on all these pitches and like, if you can look back at when the guy was offended by your utters, right? It'd be like, you're probably not going to be a really good client for us.

I don't care if your Chick-Fil-A. Uh, like, I need to pick. And then the other point, I think that you mentioned, you know, like kind of like to sum it up is that the end of the day, the agency needs to be the advisor. You can be a really good advisor if you really get laser focused at what you're going after. And having a niche or a specialization rather than a generalist and going after all the big brands.

Like when we did that, it was just challenging. But when we started going after automotive, I could talk to Porsche, I could talk to Lotus, talk to Maserati. Like I was like, hey, I speak your language, guys. I race cars too. Like, I'm one of you. So…

Joe: [00:12:53] Yeah. Super cool. Yeah, we, it is interesting that, um, they both sides of the equation were talking similar language though in terms of what they were looking for when it came to strategy. And I thought that was interesting that clients were saying, I wish my agency were more strategic. And then the agency people were saying things like, I wish my client would let me be more strategic.

So, you know, we, we started that conversation like the old book from the, I guess it was the 80s or something. Men are from Venus & Women are from Mars or whatever it was. And that was sort of like the agencies and clients. But the reality is the best agency-client relationships have shared goals. You know, do you have shared and common KPIs, your key performance indicators that you're trying to achieve.

And, you know, sometimes clients will give their agencies skin in the game and, and tie their compensation to, you know, some metric that is important to the larger business. But at the end of the day, those best agency, client relationships, you know, there's no surprises. There's a high level of transparency between client and agency.

There's some vulnerability there in terms of sharing, more than you maybe should on purpose. Um, and then just being super clear with expectations about, you know, and that goes on both sides. I mean, the agencies setting clear expectations and being completely transparent and candid about what they do well and what they don't do well.

Uh, a big frustration for a lot of clients that we talk to is, you know, my agency says they're good at everything. And I know that they’re not.

Jason: [00:14:35] Yeah. Yeah. They're full of shit. Yeah. I mean, at the end of the day, it's even if you have the client that like when… Going back to I wish I could be more strategic and I wish you were more strategic…

Well, it sounds like, you know, if you find the right client, like it's about the communication or the process in order to show them that, rather than going, you should go do this, but then you can't back it up. I'm like…

Joe: [00:14:57] Yeah. There's a, there's a book that I've always loved since I first read it. And I recommend it to a lot of people in The Challenger Sale.

And I think you've probably read it. But the concept of The Challenger Sale, the biggest concept to me is you're looking for tension in the relationship. You're not looking for harmony in the relationship. Or relationship… people think they want to hire a relationship builder as a sales guy or saleswoman.

The reality is a relationship builder. You can be buddies with your sales rep, but never buy anything from them. But those that really challenged… So the idea of the challenger sale in the book is you push the client, you bring them an insight that's not obvious to them. You get them to nod their head that, yes, that same issue happens within my organization.

And then it only, then that they've nodded their head and said, yes, this happens within my organization, you can present your solution as the best. Or maybe the only way to solve that specific challenge or problem. And, um, and I had always been that way with clients where I was constantly, you know, pushing them and looking for tension.

And there's a fun byproduct of being a real challenger and the by-product is relationship. Um, because I think that the clients will appreciate... I don't think clients hire an agency because they want order takers, usually. They hire a client, they hire an agency because there's some unmet need. You know, we talked about capacity or capability need, and they feel that the agency could not only solve that problem, but help them think through the future and, and overcome challenges that they haven't even anticipated yet.

Jason: [00:16:48] Yeah. We, we were talking about this in our mastermind. We were helping a member out. Um, and they just, their close rate just kept going down and down. And everyone, a lot of people were starting to focus on the end. Like what, how are you asking for the close? We're like, let's start at the very beginning and let's, how are you setting up the meeting? Like, how are you starting the meeting?

Are you letting them know…? Like whenever I would do a sales call, I'd be like, hey guys, I'm like, I'm going to build rapport really quick, but I'm not going to be their friend. The friend can come later on, but if they look at me as a friend, they're never going to buy from their friend, they have to, I have to position as an advisor.

And then right after I do that, I'm like, hey, I have this quick little framework I'm going to go through to make sure we stay on time and make sure I can really figure out what your biggest issue is so we can fix that out. Can we, can we stay on track?

And like, if you audit your process, like start from the very beginning a lot of times people get off track there. And then what do we have happen? The prospect just won't shut up for 40 minutes. They tell you this crap story that you don't need right now. Um, I'm being nice. Uh, but among …

Joe: [00:18:00] Yeah. Well, or even go back further. I mean, you know, and to you, you kind of made this point earlier a little bit, which is, are you prospecting the right kind of opportunity?

You know, before you even get to the meeting or the conversation, is it the right person? Uh, back when I was at a small digital shop, when I began, you know, my, my mark, my agency career, I had four criteria to determine if I wanted to pursue an opportunity.

One was, do we want their logo on our logo slide? You know, is it a brand that we just really need, we really want? Number two was, is it a hundred thousand dollars in revenue and profitable for us as an agency in terms of opportunity? Third was does it teach us a new skill that we need to have? We just don't have today. And then fourth was, are there hungry mouths to feed within the agency? And we just, we'll take it even if it doesn't meet those three criteria because the thing that they need is the exact thing that we have some capacity on right now?

Over time, we became part, we were acquired and became part of a kind of medium-size full service agency. We went from 50 people to 250 people.

And that number, that second criteria, which was a hundred thousand dollars, became 200 became 500,000, became a million. And by the time we sold to a massive holding company in 2013. Um, I was… if I didn't see a million dollars in revenue in year one, they were too small. And it wasn't just size, but it was just the commitment of does this client…? Are they committed to marketing and working with us on a larger scale than just, we want to give you a little project here?

And that doesn't mean we would never take on a project if it was a foot in the door that meant, you know… We would get in and get an opportunity to earn the larger piece of business. But we were really careful about that. We wanted to know that there was a path to a million dollars in revenue in year one. Um, and, and I think, you know, setting those parameters upfront, you know, if you're talking about an agency business development standpoint… You need to have your criteria.

I have, an agency we work with that, um, that also has a PITA criteria. Do we think that the client is going to be a pain in the ass? And if the answer is yes, I don't care how many… you know. There are some red flags that sometimes occur upfront. To your point, when you're first having the conversation that the money looks attractive, but maybe you should run away.

Jason: [00:20:43] Yeah. Trust your gut, your gut never lies.

Joe: [00:20:46] And I'll give you one other piece that you probably experienced in your days running an agency. But nothing is motivational to the team in a positive way, in a very positive way than you firing a pita client. Um, you know, if a client truly is abusive or, you know, doesn't treat the agency like a strategic partner and treats the agency like a vendor or something like that, um, it's not worth the revenue. It's just not.

And, and nothing, nothing helps your team be more supportive of the overall mission of the agency than when you say, look, we won't tolerate… You know, a client that's not supportive, not, not, uh, that that's abusive or…

Jason: [00:21:36] Yeah, we. Yeah, I can't agree with you more on that. I mean, we literally, there was a… There was a member in the mastermind, not too long ago, that was doing stuff that we didn't agree that we asked to leave. Um, and then it just rallies the other, the other people. They were like, oh wow, they're not just, just taking for the money. They'll defend me. Um, and, uh, yeah, I think it says a lot about your company and character in that. So…

Well, this has all been amazing, Joe. Is there anything I didn't ask you that you think would benefit the audience?

Joe: [00:22:13] Um, I would just say that if there's an agency that's interested in growth, um, there are certainly… We can offer some services that help growth. Um, the four primary services can be found at And I can send you a link to that.

But essentially the services are around how do you help the agency position itself for growth? How do you, um, really uncover insights about the agency, that'll help you do that. And then we actually do help agencies grow through business development services on our sustainable pipeline.

So we do have some pretty strict criteria about the kinds of agencies that we'll take on to work with. So we're not working with really small agencies. If they've got fewer than say 50 full-time employees, we probably won't we'll work with them on an ongoing… You know, sustainable pipeline basis. But happy to have the conversation with, with anyone that might be interested.

Jason: [00:23:14] Awesome. Well, thanks so much, Joe, for coming on the show and everybody go check out their website. If you have more than 50 employees and you need help, go check them out.

And if you want to be around amazing agency owners on a consistent basis where they can see the gaps that you're not able to see. Help you climb that mountain a lot faster, prevent those falls from crashing in the crevasses. Uh, I want you guys to go to a This is our exclusive mastermind for experienced agency owners.

And until next time have a Swenk day.

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