The Client Doesn’t Come First


Something I’ve noticed in the digital industry is the oft-used mantra ‘our clients come first’. Agencies slap this slogan on their websites, churn it out in their sales spiel and state it in their company values with gusto. As if ‘putting the client first’ is somehow a) a differentiator in this hyper-competitive market and b) what potential clients want to hear.

Well, spoiler alert. Not only does pretty much every agency on the planet tout this, but as a client you should run a mile any time you see an agency that endorses this mindset.

When I hear an agency say that they put their clients first, it tells me that they put their staff last. And this, my friends, ultimately leads to the exact opposite effect of what was intended in the first place.

The pervasive effects of people-pleasing

When agencies say that they put clients first, what this actually means is that they expect their staff to say ‘yes’ to the client’s every demand. They want their workers to be ‘yes men’ (or women). 

As the fat cats at the top cater to the client’s every whim because, you know, money, they put their teams through unnecessary duress and pressure. They agree to ridiculous timelines and workloads, all in the name of keeping the client happy.

In this culture where the client says ‘jump’ and the agency says ‘how high’, it’s only a matter of time before the client is busting up boundaries left, right and centre. They begin to expect same day turnarounds, late nights and weekend work. And why wouldn’t they? They’ve learned early on that ‘no’ isn’t a word in the agency’s vocabulary. In fact, they’ve been repeatedly told over and over that they, the client, come first. 

The downward spiral

The agency staff know full well that their boss doesn’t have their back. It’s only the client’s happiness, and not their own, that matters. These staff ‘in the trenches’ (who by the way are often on the lowest salaries, as low as £18k a year, in London no less) quickly become miserable, dealing on a daily basis with clients that are overly demanding. They feel unable to push back or tell the client that no, they don’t actually work late nights or weekends, for fear of displeasing the client (and ultimately their boss).

So the inevitable happens: the staff become demotivated, demoralised and burnt out. Mistakes happen, the quality of work slips. The client becomes unhappy, and the agency bosses pile even more pressure onto their teams for fear of losing the client (and their bonus).

Underpaid, underappreciated and overworked, the agency staff finally have enough and quit. For some reason this usually happens at the one-year mark – I guess by this point people realise they’ve done enough time to stick the role on their CV and breeze into another job, no questions asked.

Burn and churn

The churn rate in most digital marketing agencies is absolutely chronic. Anything above a year is impressive by most standards. And this in itself creates an even bigger problem: with people leaving as soon as they’ve developed their skills, they’re essentially leaving as soon as they’re able to deliver more value to the agency.

The agency then ends up with an endless conveyor belt of junior team members with no-one to look up to or learn from, muddling their way through until it’s time for them too to burn out and move on.

As you would expect, all of this creates an absolutely shitty experience for the client. Unexperienced, demotivated, overworked teams do not produce stellar results. And yet it all started off so well, with the seemingly innocent notion of ‘putting the client first’.

Put your team first

So what’s the solution? Of course we want to deliver great work to our clients – having happy clients is one of the most satisfying parts of the job! The key is to flip the dogma on its head: it’s not the client you should be putting first, but your team.

At Distilled, we had a saying:

‘It’s much harder to find a good consultant than it is to find a good client’. 

Will Critchlow (former Distilled CEO) and the team knew what they were doing. The tenure of people at Distilled was impressive by industry standards, with many people having been there for five years or more. When I joined as an SEO analyst in 2018, bruised from other agency experiences, I couldn’t quite believe that people had really stuck around in one agency for that long. 

The effect of the team-first culture was immediately apparent. Knowing that their boss had their back, the team weren’t perpetually stressed or worried, or under duress to cater to the whims of difficult clients.

Instead, they were genuinely happy to be at work. They were comfortable setting boundaries with clients. They were energised and engaged, with a good work-life balance and a natural desire to do great work. They had the time and inclination to help out more junior team members, happy to share their skills and knowledge.

The result? A strong, highly-skilled team that consistently delivered top-notch work to clients.  Not only that, but a happy team, genuinely invested in helping their clients and being the supportive agency partner that a client can only dream of. 

Just as a parent should put on their oxygen mask first in order to be able to help their child, an agency that looks after their own is the type of agency that is able to properly care for their clients. So next time you’re looking for an agency, find somewhere that boasts about how much they care about and invest in their team.

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