Master or servant: how should you work with agencies?

The relationship between brands and their creative agencies is often an unhappy one.

I don’t have any stats at my fingertips, but it’s often observed that the rate of satisfaction tends to be quite low on both sides of the table.  From the client’s side, the complaints tend to centre on agencies’ inability to understand what they want, respond to feedback, and see the bigger picture.  And as for agencies, well, their contempt for clients’ “lack of bravery” and “lack of appreciation for creativity” is never too far from the surface.

I’ve been fortunate to observe this dynamic from both sides of the table – first in my old job as an agency strategist, and now in my current one where I tend to sit with the client and see things from the brand’s point of view.

What I’ve learned from this is that the root of the problem tends to be one of power – of who is directing who.

You may think this is a weird thing to say, since surely the brand is the client and so they’re the ones calling the shots – but this isn’t always the case.  Often the relationship is defined by the agency telling the brand what to do, rather than the other way around.  As we shall see this is not necessarily a bad thing – but what is bad is if the two parties don’t know the balance of their relationship going into things.  That’s when conflicts arise.

So in this piece I want to outline:

  • How agencies work
  • The different kinds of relationship brands can have with them
  • And how to choose which is right for you.

Let’s get on with it.

To make this simple I’ve broken the possible relationships down into three dynamics:

Servant dynamic – where the client is subservient to the agency
Peer dynamic – where the two parties work together on equal footing
Master dynamic  – where the agency is subservient to the client

Before digging into how each of these work, understand that although we should all aspire to master dynamic, all of these relationships can be harmonious.  Attempting a master dynamic when your business is better suited to a servant dynamic will not help you, so it’s key to understand where you are, and what’s right at this moment.

So how do we do that?

To explain that we must begin with an outline of how agencies work.  Or at least in my view how they should work.  I dare say many of my agency readers will howl at what is to follow, but nonetheless I think that it is broadly true, and so serves our purposes adequately here.

In essence the job of a creative agency is as follows:

Communicate to consumers what a brand offers in the most effective way possible.

The brand does a certain job, and the agency finds a way to present it in a manner which makes it clear, noticeable, and attractive.  There are naturally lots of subtleties, but let’s face it, that’s the basic idea.

Now clearly in order to do this the core competency of a creative agency is simple: creativity.  That’s why brands hire agencies in the first place: because that sort of artistry is not typically catered for in-house, and yet you need it if you’re going to draw maximum attention to your offering.

However, although creativity is ultimately the point of working with agencies, it is not where we should be focusing our attention when it comes to understanding how we work with them.  I believe it was Blair Enns who said something like “artistry is the commodity”, meaning that just as all cars should get you from point A to point B, all agencies should be able to provide creativity.  That’s the basic bit; the bit that makes them agencies in the first place.

Instead our attention should be focused on what happens in the lead up to the creative: the strategy.  That’s where tensions arise.

Agency strategy is distinct from the strategy we generally talk about here, in that it is further downstream.  Agencies don’t have the mandate to actually change what a business does, what its product is, how it’s structured.  They simply have to work with it as it is, and frame what they’re given in the best possible light.

As a result there are two core steps to agency strategy:

  1. Identify the unique value offering to communicate
  2. Make a “leap” to spin that offering in a more arresting and powerful way

(Credit to my pal Vaughan, an agency strategist, who broke it down like this)

These then constitute the brief they give to their creative team, who will bring it to life.

The first point there is straight forward enough: what do we tell consumers this brand does which others don’t.  The second point is a little more subtle; it’s the more artful moment where you find a way to tie that offering into a cultural or human insight in order to make it sing.

For a rough example, consider the “Dirt is Good” platform from the detergent brand Persil.  First up, we might imagine here that the value offering was something like “clean clothes for the whole family” (probably wasn’t, but it’ll do to make the point).  Now if you take that message and communicate it at face value, even if it’s strong you’ll have a pretty boring piece of work.  That’s why you need the leap.  The leap in this case was something along the lines of “it’s good that kids get their clothes dirty because it means they’re doing fun wholesome stuff”.  This meant that Persil, by fighting dirt actually enables kids to get dirty – so in effect it’s pro-dirt, not anti.  Such a logic flip is naturally quite interesting in the detergent category, and so leads to an effective creative territory.  The brief for creative then may have been something like “celebrate dirtiness”, which they then transformed to “Dirt is Good” and all the stuff around it.

Get the idea?

OK, so now we understand how an agency should work, we can get on to the different forms of relationship this may lead to – servant / peer / master.  In essence the relationship is determined by to what extent the agency takes responsibility for the above strategic steps, and to what extent the brand does.

Here’s what I mean.


In the servant dynamic, the brand allows the agency to take total control of both the above steps: the identification of the value to be communicated, and the leap.  For the majority of brands this is appropriate because, quite simply, they have no clear strategy and thus have no idea what their unique value offering should be.  They want their agency to tell them.  They want their agency to be their master.

When I was an agency strategist the vast majority of my responses began this way, by figuring out what the brand was offering.  Sure, in the majority of briefs the client would take a stab at it, but generally their suggestions were far too generic.  This was understandable since very few brands have done the upstream strategic work we talk about in these essays.  Without that you can’t be expected to understand your value offering – never mind the creative leap.

As a result, if your business doesn’t have a clearly defined strategy then you will need to have a servant dynamic with your agency.  You will need to find an agency who is really good at strategy so they can patch up the holes left by your lack of internal direction.

Most brands are in this camp.


If you’re reading my stuff, I’d like to think you’ll have enough of a grasp of strategy to graduate from the servant dynamic and move to this next one: the peer.

In the peer dynamic the brand has got a good grasp of its overall strategy, and therefore understands intimately what the unique value is that it offers to the market.  Not only will this be neatly articulated on paper; it will also be reflected in the structure of the business.

In such cases you don’t want the agency to query or challenge the offering because you’ve already figured it out.  You simply want them to take it and make it palatable for consumers, which means taking the leap, and then executing it creatively.

A good agency in this case will take your value offering and run with it, returning to you with a new exciting way of framing it just like with the Persil example above.  As you can see it’s a peer relationship since each party takes control of the things they should control, with little encroachment into the others’ turf.

Realistically I suggest this is what you should be aiming for.  It’s achievable, healthy, and frankly ahead of what most brands will ever manage.


Very occasionally, a brand goes beyond simply understanding their value offering and takes a creative leap as well.  These are the brands who have creativity “baked into them” from the start.  Red Bull, Patagonia, etc. etc.  The brands who I talk about under the adage “make interesting companies, not interesting advertising”.

They have not only established what their value offering is, but they have identified an exciting way to frame it, and then have run that framing right through their company like a stick of rock, creating a business so charismatic that it is, in effect, a living and breathing ad for itself.

Such brands don’t let agencies tell them what to do.  They might use agencies, sure – perhaps for pure creative execution work.  But the power dynamic is completely on the client’s side of the table, hence “master”.

Very few brands achieve this status, since very few brands have the kind of artful skill required for this internally.  Often these brands will have internal creative departments, creative directors, highly visionary founders, stuff like that.

So shoot for it by all means, but it’s really beyond what you need to become conventionally successful.

Here’s a summary chart to explain the three dynamics:

Wrapping this up then, you should now be able to see where the tensions arise in brand / agency relationships.  Rarely do the two parties click together neatly in one of these dynamics.  More typical is either:

  1. The brand needs a servant dynamic but finds themselves working with a strategically weak agency, who can’t fill in the gaps left by their lack of strategy.  In these cases messy, illogical, sub-standard work is generally produced which leaves everyone frustrated but nobody is quite sure how to fix it.


  1. The brand does have a clear understanding of its strategy, thus necessitating a peer relationship, but the agency keeps trying to reinvent the wheel, overwork the strategy, and misses the big picture – resulting in a power struggle.

In all cases the solution comes in knowing where to draw the line between the two parties, so everyone knows their role, and a smooth process can ensue.

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