What Makes a Great Client / Agency Relationship?



12 min read

We have the best clients here at Canny. Hands down. We’re also pretty good at the whole client/agency relationship.

While we love all of our clients, not all agencies and clients have smooth sailing relationships.

When there are deadlines and budgets involved, working relationships can become strained, so we asked ourselves:

What makes a great client/agency relationship?

We’re all about building a long-lasting client/agency relationship here at Canny, so let’s delve into this topic.

Perfect Pairings: Not So Perfect?

Remember the opening scene in Forrest Gump when Forrest is talking about meeting Jenny and says they went together “like peas and carrots?” Of course you do, and if you don’t, you know what to watch tonight.

There are pairings that are just naturally ubiquitously perfect. Gin and tonic, peanut butter and jam, ice cream and break-ups.

And yet, if you remember the swirled jar of Smucker’s Goober Peanut Butter and Jam Jelly Stripes, these ubiquitously perfect match-ups can sometimes go horribly and disastrously wrong.

At the surface, clients and creative agencies should go together like, well peanut butter and jam.

Clients know what they want but often are unable to create the end product, while creative agencies know exactly how to create an end product that matches client’s goals and vision.

And yet, often, these relationships are bumpier than intended, and regularly end in ice cream.

But it is possible – and often simple – to create a client creative agency relationship that is as beautifully paired as Jenny and Forrest.

This blog will offer suggestions and strategies you can use to pave those bumps and create a client/creative agency relationship that go together like peas and carrots.

Peanut Butter and Gripes

The most cited reason for a bumpy relationship between client and creative agency is a lack or breakdown in communication.

Clients complain that designers “didn’t listen,” or that the final product “looks nothing like I told them!”

Designers in turn gripe that the client “had no idea what they wanted” or “they didn’t tell me they hate asymmetrical designs.”

Communication seems simple, right?

One person talks, one person listens – perfection. But the communication between client and creative agency can easily become muddled and chaotic.

Clients usually have a large vision of the end product. They know what they want the final product to look like. Most of the time, they don’t know how to get to that end product and often they struggle to communicate their vision of the end product to the creative designer.

They might know they want bright colours, they want a lot of content and they want marketing features embedded into the design. They may have seen a creative design that they like or they may have seen several sites and want to include elements from all of them into their design.

The designer is stuck trying to comprehend and create this vision that is essentially trapped inside the client’s brain. And sometimes, the client won’t share their budget, which can be frustrating.

This is where communication can initially breakdown.

The designer may think they know what the client wants, the client may be assured that the designer knows what they want, but then the end design differs from the client’s initial vision, creating a strained relationship, frustration and in many cases complete project breakdown.

It’s not surprising that the best way to initiate and create a relationship that is based on trust, collaboration, and ongoing feedback is based largely on effective communication.

So, how can clients and designers communicate effectively?

At Canny we use Asana as our chosen project management tool. This helps to give a top-down view of what’s going on with the project at all times.

It also acts as a central hub to drop files, images, thoughts and comments relating to the project. And with whole team access, these can be picked up and discussed as the project rolls along.

Be Petty.

When you’re communicating to your designer, be as petty as possible. Don’t apologize for having a deep distaste for the colour green. Your abhorrence of sans serif font? Say it loud and say it proud. Do squares scare you? Your designer won’t judge you.

The point is, tell your designer. They need to know what design elements – including colours, shapes, styles, and fonts – you really really like AND those you really really hate.

Be especially clear and communicate those design elements you hate. When your designer has an idea of what not to use, it is easy for your designer to create creative designs that work without certain elements and integrate other creative and innovative elements.

But then be ready for questions from your design agency. If a client told the Canny team, “I don’t really like the colour green”, one of our team members would fire back with:

“We’re not creating this design for you. It’s for your target audience or clients. And if they’re going to be digging green, then we’re sorry but that’s the right solution.”

As a designer, ask the right questions. Ask the client is there are elements they hate or elements they REALLY love.

Don’t be afraid to tell a client if you think an element or idea doesn’t match with their overall vision, the overall design or just isn’t possible to integrate.

It’s better they know during the initial planning meetings then have to tell them later in the process. Be clear and be confident in you creative abilities.

They will appreciate knowing and you will build trust in your ability to create a design that matches their vision.

Don’t apologize, don’t feel bad and don’t be afraid to communicate with each other at these very initial meetings. It actually makes ongoing communication straightforward and gives both client and designer equal access to each other’s ideas and vision.

It is important that personal taste and preferences are left aside. The client needs to outline the problem, and the designer needs help solve it.

We’re not in the industry of selling the pretty. We’re selling solutions that solve problems. If we’re talking about shades of teal, or the colour green because you hate it, we’re having the wrong discussions!

Stop. Think again about the problem. Highlight the end goal, and work together to move towards it.

Show, Don’t Tell.

If you see a design or elements that you like, show them to your designer. Your designer may not be able to replicate the design entirely, however, once they see what you like and what you’re drawn to they will have an idea of what design and elements to include in your design.

Designers are creative and they work with their eyes – they love to SEE these elements rather than try to create a vision from your explanation.

Print out the designs, send the designer websites or pictures and explain to them what elements you’re drawn to.

As a designer, if your client is expressing a vision with certain elements, show them examples of these elements and ensure it is really what they are thinking about. Use other designs you’ve created or examples of other designers work to ensure you and the client are both talking about the same thing.

At Canny, we use Pinterest and Invision to create mood-boards and brand story boards in the early stages of the project. These help to ensure that everyone is on the same page, and help the project moving forward.

Again, these mood-boards act as a reference point and both sides can say “Back in the mood-board phase, we agreed to X, Y and Z” which can help resolve tricky situations.

Check In.

Designers should offer check-in meetings or access to the ongoing design to their clients. Clients can also request check-ins or ongoing access.

This doesn’t mean the client gets to sit next to the designer at their desk and watch them create the design but it also doesn’t mean the client needs to wait in their parlour for the artistic removal of the sheet and unveiling of the design.

Be reasonable.

Create scheduled check-in points along the project. There are excellent programs and apps that enable clients to look at the design in process and offer comments along the way.

A lot of these apps and programs are designed for the collaboration and project management within a design team, but giving access to clients can create an open and ongoing communication strategy that is effective and efficient.

Some to consider include Asana, Invision, Slack, Basecamp and Trello. These tools will enable sharing of work, timeline management and ongoing communication between client and designer.

Designers should take those comments constructively and edit designs accordingly. Once edited, offer the revamped design for further commentary from the client.

Be Open, Be Honest and Be True to the Design.

Clients often report that during initial meetings and presentation of their vision, designer’s promise them to design and elements that will knock their socks off. Come the end of the project, they’re presented with an end product that is uncreative, seems templated or is boring.

Designers must be confident and open in communicating their capabilities and not over promise and under deliver on their projects.

If a client is requesting a logo design that is incredibly bright and busy but the designer believes this will create an unsatisfactory design – the relationship between designer and client should be established enough for the designer to communicate these concerns to the client.

The client, in turn, must be open to the designer’s comments and work with the designer to create a more fluid and effective design.

Clients should remember that although their vision is the starting point, it is the designer that is ultimately the expert in creating and providing that vision.

Consider your designers’ comments and be confident in their ability to create a design that matches your vision and is as innovative and effective as possible.

Ongoing communication and check-ins will drastically improve the design expectations, but relationship building is not only about communication. The designer needs to deliver on their value proposition.

Ultimately, clients hire designers to add to their projects. Designers shouldn’t need to be lead through their own creative process. They should have the skills and abilities to tackle the client’s problem without hand holding.

Remember, creatives and design agencies are here to solve problems. If we have the problem clearly outlined at the start, we always have a point of reference.

Be Pleasant and Be Patient.

All evidence shows that Rome in fact was not built in a day.

Remember that end product vision clients have in their head? It may seem very straightforward and easy to integrate the elements requested, but it may in actuality take a little more time and patience for your designer to ‘get it.’

Be patient with your designer, if you have regular check-ins you should have ongoing communication and know exactly how the designer is doing.

And be pleasant.

A good designer will be working hard and be very focused on integrating the elements you want and giving you the design that closely matches your vision.

Be nice to each other. Being short, impatient or hostile in your communication will not make your designer work any faster or any better.

Avoiding check-ins, timelines or not considering your client’s concerns or comments will create a strained process. Relax and let each of you do your thing – together.

Designers should also be patient with clients and their comments and do their best to continually communicate progress, show drafts and continually receive feedback from the client.

Stop Relying on Email

Email is a blessing and a curse. Emails are easy to misread. And it happens often.

Sometimes I’ll read an email and think “Crap, I’ve really annoyed my client here.” And then I’ll pick up the phone and everything is fine and dandy.

Emails can be misconstrued depending on your mood. And sometimes, it’s easier to just get on the phone and talk it out.

However, if you’re doing that, make sure you follow your phone call up with an email, so both sides know what’s been agreed too moving forward.

Make That Schedule Flexible.

Sometimes things just don’t “fit in” to the schedule of work. And this works both ways.

Often, clients will try and squeeze in something extra here, or something else there. And they don’t like it when they’re told no.

On the flip side, designers often refuse to take phone calls from clients because it’s not “agreed meeting time.” And that’s just ridiculous.

Both sides need to have a degree of flexibility and transparency regarding the project.

Don’t make up arbitrary deadlines. Be realistic. And most of all, don’t be a dick. If you can take a five minute phone call and ease frustration, do it.

We’re all only human.

Talk To Each Other

In the age of home offices and online networking, it has become incredibly easy to work closely with people without every meeting or even talking with them.

Take the time to meet in person if possible, or to have a Video Chat over Skype. It’s always good to head out for a coffee (or beer) together.

This way you can create a more personal relationship, get to know each other better and exchange ideas and information with each other.

It really does make a big difference in your relationship. It may take a bit more time, but the communication will be more effective and the end product will be enhanced!


If you put open and transparent communication at the forefront of your client/agency relationship, your client and designer relationship will quickly evolve into a Batman and Robin “Holy Perfect Project Partnership.”

Take the time, follow these steps and create a relationship that goes together like spaghetti and meatballs, bacon and eggs, chips and dip…you get the point! It’s worth it and everything’s easier together.

Have you had a great client/agency relationship, or are you annoyed with your own situation? Let us know in the comments below!