Before choosing a new agency partner, savvy marketing professionals will often ask to speak with a current client of the prospective agency. This is proven to be helpful to both parties—but when is the right time to ask?

When investing in a new agency partner, marketing professionals need to feel confident they are making the right choice. To gain this confidence, prospective clients often perform a “background check” on their potential partners. One component of this includes asking to have a conversation with a few of the agency's current clients. 

The client's point of view

The motivation behind the ask is simple; marketing professionals want to know what your agency is like to work with from their side of the table. Do they communicate well? Do they live up to their promises? How do they respond when something doesn't go according to plan? 

For the client, these are important questions which will frame their expectations for how to engage with the client. This can be a make-or-break process when vetting between two potential agencies. 

The agency's perspective

While the ask may seem straightforward, it can be a stressful situation for the agency. 

  • The agency wants to connect the right potential client to the right client type. There’s no point in connecting your big ecommerce client with acquisition goals to a professional services firm focused on awareness.
  • The agency doesn’t want to overuse your clients and make them tired of talking to people in your pipeline. This is a frequently debated point: how often is too often to ask busy Client Numero Uno to take another call on your behalf? The client is doing the agency a favor, but too often prospective clients don't consider what it’s like to be on the opposite end of this request.
  • The agency wants to manage the process and control client access, while still coming across as the charming, cooperative agency vying for their business, of course. 

The dilemma 

So, what's the balance? I think it comes down to understanding what each side is trying to accomplish during this process. And that goal is mutual—both agency and client want to know that working together will be a good fit for each side. In our business, relationships matter.


Advice for the hiring client

Timing is critical when asking for access to current clients. If you ask for this level of access in an RFP, it’s too early. Wait until you have a pretty good idea that they’re “the one.” Any good agency is going to decline to provide that information until they are short-listed or finalists.

Advice for the agency

If asked too early in the process, decline to provide personal contact information. Explain that, out of respect for your clients’ busy schedules, you do not provide that information carte blanche. Remind the prospect that should they become your client, you’ll protect their privacy too.

Does any of this seem familiar? Are you frustrated with this process? This is a delicate time in a new relationship. Treat it with respect, mind your manners, and consider the other side's point of view.  

Next month — I’ll discuss what to ask those references when you do connect.