It’s a long road this path to digital enlightenment, and it involves many crossroads and epiphanies.

In the past 10 years I’ve been implementing digital campaigns, defining e-commerce strategy and I’ve been agency-side responsible for a challenging set of retail accounts. I’ve been on both sides of the fence when dealing with agency relationships.

This blog takes a peek at the wonderful mistakes I’ve made that today put me in a position of strength and confidence. You might well recognise some of these from your own experience, you might be able to suggest some more; we’re human after all.

Across all my roles there have been a few consistent themes and perhaps the most critical has been the need to closely manage relationships/partnerships.

Pivotal to the success of any e-commerce operation is the need to forge commercially sustainable relationships. 10 years ago I didn’t understand the complexity of commercial relationships but I’ve learned the hard way and am no longer fazed by the frequent issues that relationship management throws up.

Poor communication

You get out what you put in. It’s the Ronseal approach, it does what it says on the tin. If you aren’t good at communicating, you will cause confusion with your agency.

I’ve wasted time and money because I haven’t been clear enough with my requirements. A good account manager agency-side will question your briefs until they understand the detail but not every agency has such a person.

I once sent a brief for a newsletter sign-up page on the website but forgot to include any information on data management. My haste prevented me from thinking through the detail and implications of the requirement.

I’ve taught myself to pick apart every email and brief I intend to submit and ask myself “What am I really asking for?” I don’t send anything until it is crystal clear in my mind, otherwise how can I answer questions from the agency? I also structure each phone call so I have a clear objective for making the call and have access to any reference material that I might need to achieve it.

Playing games

It’s like the early sins of teenage dating: “I’m not calling her for at least three days”. I’ve unwittingly played games behind the scenes where I’ve not been 100% honest with my agency.

I mistakenly thought that if I let them dangle for a while or exaggerated the threat to their account from cheaper competition, they would come running and I’d get my way.

However, honesty and transparency are two of the most important aspects of a lasting relationship. Smart people will see through the bullshit. Of course you must protect your commercial interests but that can be done in a professional manner.

If you treat your agency as an underling or a pawn in an elaborate game of chess, you’ll get the service you deserve. If you treat them with respect and as a partner, you’ll often find they support you when you most need it.

Not speaking my mind

You’re sat in a meeting and decisions are being made that you don’t agree with. Like a living nightmare, you want to speak up but your mouth is dry and you suddenly develop an inability to open your lips. The moment passes and weeks later your doubts are proven right.

I’ve been through that several times, not willing to put my balls on the block even though I’m convinced I’ve got a better solution. Usually it’s down to insecurity and a lack of confidence in one’s own business acumen. One day you wake up and say enough. I’ve learned to objectively communicate my opinion and challenge the thinking of others without being obstructive.

Not everyone will welcome it; some people can’t handle being questioned. That’s their issue to handle not yours. As with weddings, speak your mind or forever hold your peace. Just do it calmly and politely.

Being influenced by the wrong people

I think this is the bête-noire of e-commerce managers who have not had a lot of commercial experience. You’re not yet used to the political shenanigans that go on behind the scenes. As with life, at work you will encounter strong personalities.

Some people will exert their influence without any regard for the impact it has on others. It’s amazing how a bit of flattery over a few drinks will make you think you’ve found your new best friend.

I’ve made this mistake when listening to people at senior level in both my own company and the agency. When client-side, trusting the wrong person can result in the delivery of a solution that doesn’t match company needs closely enough.

Smooth talkers have left me with an e-commerce platform that is poorly optimised for SEO because I listened to them instead of questioning the detail. I then had to explain to my Director why I hadn’t delivered what I had promised and then needed to spend more to achieve it. Schoolboy error and damaging to bonus payments.

Agency-side, the time I most regret was listening to a Director tell me how to handle a problem with a client account, being confrontational instead of building bridges.

I knew we were as much to blame for the issue but I listened and refused to compromise. I knew it was the wrong approach given the culture of the client team but I acquiesced. The result was a worsening in the relationship, bad word-of-mouth that was potentially personally damaging and a sharp rise in my stress levels.

Lacking the confidence of my convictions

Everybody has insecurities, even if they claim they don’t. At work insecurity will often manifest itself in a lack of conviction in your own decisions. As an E-commerce Manager you have to make hard decisions and you won’t always be right.

If you are not confident when making decisions, your team will realise this soon enough and will lose confidence in you as a manager. I’ve experience this first hand where my indecision has left team members confused and worried that there will be stormy waters ahead.

It is easier to manage the consequences of a decision you make than one that somebody else has made for you.

Trying to please everyone

It’s like the kid at school who wants to be liked by everyone. They try so hard that they don’t realise who is taking advantage. If you try to please everyone, you lose focus.

Working with an agency is not about being liked by everyone. There is a commercial angle that must be maintained and sometimes that means making decisions that some people might not like or agree with.

When I was younger, I accepted work because I didn’t want to stress the design team from my agency with additional changes even though I wasn’t happy with the output. The result was the implementation of work that didn’t have the desired impact and of which I was unenthused, not to mention the stress spike.

I’ve since learned that you have to make hard decisions. If you have a good relationship, you can influence people to support these decisions even if they do not delight them. The key is to explain the rationale for your decision and take ownership of the situation.

Not knowing when to say no

No means no. It doesn’t mean “No, but if you keep asking I’ll change my mind because you know I’m a pushover”. I’ve accepted project delays because of a persuasive director at the agency. The delays weren’t acceptable but I allowed them to get away with it because I didn’t like confrontation.

Now if something isn’t acceptable, I tell people and give them the reasons. I also tell them the consequences if they can’t support me or find a suitable compromise. Good communication and planning usually avoids this but sometimes you have to be firm and stand your ground. Knowing when to be flexible is a learning curve.

What lessons can you share with us?

Do these mistakes sound familiar? I’ve been lucky and benefited from the tutelage of some savvy people in the past 10 years but I’ve learned equally as much from those who, in my opinion, have no people and relationship management skills even though they consider themselves messianic.

Show me a businessman who has never made a mistake and I’ll show you someone who just isn’t aware of what good relationship management is about.

Please drop by and share your experiences. What mistakes have you made that you have learned from and how can they be avoided?

James Gurd

Published 8 April, 2011 by James Gurd

James Gurd is Owner of Digital Juggler, an ecommerce and digital marketing consultancy, and a contributor to Econsultancy.He can be found on on Twitter,  LinkedIn and Google+.

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Comments (10)

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James MacAonghus

One of the things I find hard is the balance between giving smart agencies the freedom to add value beyond what might have occurred to me, and managing them to deliver exactly what I need. My current position tends to be manage the stuff I actually need, and once that's down tight, they can innovate on top.

Another comment, which applies to Aqute as an agency as well as the agency relationships we manage, is that the agency will pick up from you how passionate you are about your project. If you treat it like project number 57 in a series of 200 mediocre projects you run each year, the agency will deliver adequate work without pushing themselves. If you show the agency that you care intensely about going beyond the call of duty, that you put in the extra mile yourself (and other such metaphors) then a good agency will pick up those vibes and follow your lead.

over 7 years ago


Andy Bacon

Some interesting thoughts in here. I'm sure most agencies have suffered "clients from hell"! There is a definite skill in getting the best out of an Agency and the foundation is quality communication which builds mutual trust and understanding.

Both parties share responsibility for this process but the Agency should really take the lead when establishing the relationship - start as you mean to carry on! Set clear expectations at the outset and this will clearly pay dividends later.

A critical time is also when a new member joins the client team and 'inherits' an established agency relationship. A good account manager will work hard to build a new relationship from first principles rather than assume any automatic transfer of goodwill. New client contacts may also be looking for any opportunity to introduce their own agency so this is clearly the time to demonstrate value.

over 7 years ago


James Barnett

Interesting article - I'm I've been guilty of at least one or two of those mistakes when dealing with agencies. I don't think that any client-side marketer can honestly say they haven't - it's too easy to fall into that trap.

It can be difficult getting the balance right -especially if the agency sells themselves as an all-knowing fountain of knowledge (and skills). This can sometimes impact your sense of self-confidence and can hold you back from asserting yourself if you believe (and in many of my cases "know") the agency to have made a mistake or have failed to understand your company's requirements.

This is solely my opinion though and from personal experience. I'm sure there are agencies out there that can make a big difference with good account management skills and an understanding of the customer needs.

over 7 years ago



Its a very nice post James! Everyone makes mistake but its about what we learn from that, and your leaning sounds incredible. I have faced this problem whenever I meet up with my client They don't seem to understand what they really need from us (I am not blaming) but they try to succumb that there expectations are too high and we meet to deliver the same. At the same time its very important to maintain a soothing relationship with your client until the contract and you have no choice of messing up with them at any time.

over 7 years ago

Sarah Alder

Sarah Alder, Managing Director at ICAEW

Your point about not speaking your mind rang true with me. For me, I learned to do it when I realised that not doing so not only left me to implement near-impossible projects but also inflicted that fate on my team. They had had no opportunity to raise their voices, so by staying quiet I had let them all down too. Not mistake I intend to make again.

over 7 years ago


Emma Hobes

Great insights you point out there, James. Communicating well, I believe, is what I need more work on. With my job of assistance, I depend on people's instructions through and over the internet and so I always take the initiative to ask questions. I don't mind being thought of as "slow" so long as I deliver my outputs correctly and on time, rather than having to repeat doing everything from scratch and waste precious hours and resources. I really just practice to take advantage of the power I have over the things that I can control.

over 7 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Thanks for the comments all.

James M - you're spot on about the passion thing. If you don't take a project seriously, it's likely your agency will get the impression it's not a high priority. Explicit and implicit communication goes a long way to shaping the level and quality of response.

Andy - good point about the impact of a new person joining the client team. I've been there on both sides and it can often derail a relationship if it is not sensibly handled. It is complicated if the new person is joining a highly politicised organisation and the agency must tread carefully when protecting its commercial interests whilst supporting the new kid on the block.

James B - it's not unheard of for strong minds in an agency to take advantage of an inexperienced client. To me that is unprofessional and doesn't lend itself to trust and a long term partnership. Most inexperienced people wise up sooner or later, then it's too late to build bridges.

Charlie - to me business relationships are similar to personal relationships - you have people and people are prone to make mistakes from time to time. The sign of a strong partnership is one where blame is not dealt out and both parties work together to resolve issues.

Sarah - been there, got plenty of t-shirts! You certainly learn quickly when not speaking your mind causes you stress and makes you look the fool. You also raise an important point about letting your team down; I learned that as a senior manager you also have to protect the interests of your team even if that demands confrontation (but please note that to me confrontation doesn't necessarily mean aggression!)

Emma- better to be slow and diligent than to be lightening fast and inaccurate. I was too impetuous when I was younger and that led to poor decision making. Tortoise and hare.....

Keep the comments coming


over 7 years ago

Doug Kessler

Doug Kessler, Director at VelocitySmall Business Multi-user

Great post and refreshing honesty. Thanks, James.

Mind if I do a reply: mistakes I've made on the agency side?

over 7 years ago


Prashanth Meka, Digital Marketing Manager at Nokia

Very interesting article James. I've been prompted on a couple of occasions to write about managing agencies, and the outcome is here: Would be interesting to see your thoughts on it.

over 7 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Hey Prashanth,

Apologies for delay in replying, been busy embracing travels in Asia. Have read your blog, really like the content. I have left a few words on there and will check it out in future.

Doug - by all means be my guest and wax lyrical about mistakes agency side. Let's turn this page into a cathartic exposure of all our errors!!!


about 7 years ago

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