working towards great client service

Building agency-client relationships: a principle of TRUST

Building and maintaining agency-client relationship has been a story long told for everyone involved in advertising practices. Various studies addressing this shows that among contributing factors to successful long-term relationships, trust is one of the most mentioned (Bahn and Kohli, 1997). However, discussing trust in this context is not entirely easy as it is not a by-the-book issue, but one that requires actual experience on the field.

Figure 1 Mr Pham Tran Phuong
Former Account Director
Ogilvy&Mather Vietnam


To see if I can clarify this issue to some extent, I went and saw an old friend, Mr. Pham Tran Phuong, for an interview. Having a working period in the past of more than six years at Ogilvy & Mather Vietnam, this man started from scratch and worked his way up to the Account Director position. With that much of experience in hand, he should know well about agency-client relationship. When I told him my topic, he immediately said: ‘For this matter, I have only one principle to hold on to: trust’. At once, I knew I came to the right person.

‘There can be much yet at the same time very little to say when you talk about trust’, he said, ‘the things involve with trust vary, but its importance makes it so obvious that it becomes your way of living if you want to be in the industry’.  Just like that, Phuong then described how ‘trust’ is agencies’ building brick in relationships with clients.

Funnily enough, he asked me to consider agency-client relationship as similar to that of a couple, meaning that the stages finally lead to figuring out if the two can trust each other enough to think about a future together. During this on-going process, lying and hiding are the last things agencies should do. This has been proved right since research shows that among the break-up factors of client-agency relationships, client’s dissatisfaction because of the agency’s being distant and keeping clients in the dark is ranked number one (Doyle, Jens & Michell, 1980).

He also stated that when agencies are honest about everything, including their problems, there is a higher possibility that the clients will sympathize and help them. The association agencies can create with clients by building trust is remarkably similar to friendship. Since friends are supposed to be there for each other, times of troubles can be nothing, which is where the value of trust lies.


The second aspect of trust is for agencies to consider the two parties as parts of one team, working and devoting for a brand, instead of one side doing service for the other. ‘When you start to think of yourselves as some service supplier, you stop adding values to your work’, Phuong said. This is a crucial point since one of clients’ biggest agency-choosing rubrics is to see whether the agency is concerned about not only their own but also the brand’s well-being (Zyman and Brott, 2002). To support, he gave the relationship between the brand ‘Dove’ and Ogilvy as an example. Getting to its position as a world-known brand today, Dove has went on a more-than-fifty-year brand building journey, in which its baby steps were under the direction of David Ogilvy (Ogilvy 2005). Through this journey of establishing the brand, Ogilvy has nurtured with its client a bond that helps it gain a premium position in both the industry Dove’s later campaigns.

Figure 2 Dove’s campaigns executed by Ogilvy & Mather
Source: Google Stock Images

From Phuong ‘s experience working for the agency,  the major factor in this success must have been for the working principle ‘garbage in, garbage out’, which stresses that the agency takes clients seriously as their partner and cooperate in a process of non-stop adding values.  ‘Good clients invite us to important marketing meetings so that we can be inspired; so as a good agency, we need to know how to give back.’ Again, honesty plays a key role as trust is the most important yet hardest thing to gain.


In the long run of building win-win relationships, we can’t undermine ‘personal relationships’ between agency people and their clients.  Although many personal relationships don’t seem related to business; but they actually affect the work (Halinen, 1997). Drawing upon this, Phuong shared that an account director carries the hard job of being a bridge between creative team and clients. Troubles are everywhere unless the advertising person knows how to make it less serious on a friend-to-friend basis. However, he then stressed this is not an excuse to elude hard work. ‘Solving problems by using your relationships with the clients should only be the follow-up resort; first priority is always to be prepared every time you meet with them’, he added.

The second point Phuong made regarding personal relationship is that, nevertheless, it is not compulsory. Demanding clients are usually good ones; however, some tend to abuse their power. It is the agency’s people job to balance ‘yes’ and ‘no’ not only in work but also in personal life. Knowing barriers and respecting the professional codes of conducts are key things to keep in mind.

Figure 3
Source: Google Stock Images

The issue of ethic was also part of our interview. As I asked him about the problem of some advertising people taking clients with them when they leave the agency, his answer was straight forward that if the clients’ leaving results from the advertising people’s talents, it wouldn’t matter. The business between two people wouldn’t affect a firm alignment between a company and its agency. However, if that person exploits his relationships and lures clients with him on purpose, it would only hurt his reputation, which is extremely dangerous in an industry that highly values reputation. ‘Personal relationships are crucial, but be careful for they can be a two-bladed knife’, he concluded.


This meeting with Mr.Phuong was truly some experience. Not until now that I have a better understanding on how the ‘trust’ factor means so much for an ad practitioner. And although a two-hour interview is never enough when you come to discuss client service, I really hope that my sharing will facilitate you with helpful guidance to successful agency-client relationships later on in your career.


Vuong Bao Ngoc


Wordcount: 1100


Bahn, D, Kohli, C 1997, Maintaining Client Commitment in Advertising Agency–Client Relationships, Industrial Marketing Management, vol. 26, pp. 497-508.

Doyle, P, Jens, M, Michell, P 1980, Signals of Vulnerability in Agency-Client Relations, Journal of Marketing, Vol. 44, No. 4, pp. 18-23.

Halinen, A 1997, Relationship Marketing in Professional Services, Routeledge, USA.

Ogilvy 2005, 50 Years of Dove:  The Story of a Brand (1955-2005), Ogilvy Intranet.

Zyman, S, Brott, A 2002, The end of advertising as we know it, John Wiley& Sons, New Jersey.


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One thought on “Building agency-client relationships: a principle of TRUST

  1. “However, discussing trust in this context is not entirely easy as it is not a by-the-book issue, but one that requires actual experience on the field.” – Ngoc, you have hit the nail on the head with this one! The first step in writing a great interview article is to find the right person to ask the burning questions in your head.

    It would also be good to keep asking questions and reveal more about your personal opinions. E.g. Did the 2-hour interview leave you with more questions? What were they? Have you thought of some alternative views on Mr. Phuong’s ideas?

    Mr. Phuong is quite an impressive character with very clever advices to give indeed. Your writing demonstrates an inquisitive perspective that every budding client manager should have. Good job! ~Mel C

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