Kel Kelly

Hey, thanks for swinging by my blog.

Whether it's topical news, internet happenings, social media, public relations, marketing, start-ups, mobile shiz or whatever, I promise to wade through the bullshit and give you my unbuffered perspective.

You'll note I never take on a "corporate tone" — whether I'm chatting you up at a party or speaking to the CEO of a multi-billion dollar company, my voice never changes. I say what's on my mind and I'm often the champion of the underdog.

I'm a social media junkie and smoke Google Analytics in a crack pipe to get my day going. I hope my immersed insight and offbeat view make you laugh. More importantly, I hope you take a second and share your thoughts by posting a comment. If you have any ideas on how to make my blog better, shoot an email to [email protected].

Peace out.

It’s “Agency” Not “Slavery”

May 30, 2009 8:03 AM

Before you read this post, you need to view the YouTube video The Vendor Client Relationship In Real World Situations. I laughed my tail off when I watched it because the execution amplifies the delusional approaches some companies attempt when it comes to paying for work/services from agencies. I can’t imagine there is anyone who has worked at a creative agency that has not had a company try to use any of the following arguments for not paying and/or reducing fees:

We don’t have it in our budget: Oh really…then what the eff are you doing standing in front of me and asking me to to do work for you? Last time I checked we didn’t have a sign outside our office that said “Free Marketing Services.”

We want everything but can only pay for a portion: Didn’t your mother teach you that you can’t always get what you want…and if she didn’t, The Rolling Stones should have. Here’s an idea, use your brain and put together a plan within your budget. I’m pretty sure that’s what you were hired to do…or did the employment ad say “Looking for someone to take our marketing budget and build a marketing plan that costs four times that amount.” I’m gonna let you in on a secret — agencies were not put on this earth to make up for client budget shortfalls.

I can get it cheaper from <insert name>: You get what you pay for homey. This week I actually had someone tell us she could get a logo done by her friend who is an “artist” for less money. Good luck on that one sista’. If you want to have someone who is good at pottery design the iconic image for your brand then you go for it!

I can pay more next time: Ummm…no you can’t and you won’t. There is not a company on the planet that will go from having a laughable marketing budget to a well funded one. Why? Because some schmo — usually the CFO that allocated the budget — thinks spending on marketing is wasteful and that’s why you were given an inadequate budget to begin with. That person’s perception will never evolve. Remember these people wouldn’t know a kick-ass marketing campaign if it kicked them in the ass.

Let’s use this project as a test: In other words, “if you do well with this project that we are paying jack shit for, we will give you more work and pay fairly for it.” Honestly, do they expect that person from the agency to jump up and down while clicking their heals and clapping their hands to squeal, “That sounds great! I love tests! When can we get started!”

This is an opportunity: No, it’s not. Spending a month in Darfur is an opportunity. This is a screw job. It won’t be long before you question why you bent over to pick up the soap.

I ordered three but only used one: This one always makes me wonder how much crack is actually smoked on the job. The agency is retained to do three separate projects which they complete. Something happens inside the company — usually a budget reduction — that only allows them to execute one. As a result, they now don’t want to pay the agency for the other two that they now won’t be able to use. And really…why should they…I’m pretty sure agencies exist for the sole purpose of absorbing every budget reduction that hits a company. Pass the crack pipe dude.

Show us how to do it so we can do it in-house next time: No problem. I’m happy to take my intellectual property that was developed over many years and give it to you so you don’t hire us again. <visualize two thumbs up with a big grinning face>

Wikipedia defines slavery as a form of forced labor in which people are considered to be, or treated as, the property of others. I’m sure every employee working at an agency reading this post just shit a Twinkie at how accurately that definition describes their world when it comes to some clients.

What’s an agency to do? It’s quite simple:

Make sure your pricing is fair: Always fair. Don’t raise it if you think the client can pay more. I believe you get what you give. By giving fair pricing you will receive it from the vendors you deal with.

Walk away from every situation described above: Seriously. Without exception. Don’t compromise your integrity or the value you deliver. Yes, it’s a tough economy but acquiescing to any of the above scenarios is unhealthy because you are being used and because you then become an enabler to this dysfunctional behavior.

If they are rude or bullying, laugh in their face: Sometimes the person at the company seeking your services is just the messenger in the above scenarios. Often times they are being told to say those things by someone else. In those cases it’s important to be empathetic and respectfully explain why the situation will not work for your agency. How-effing-ever, if the person communicating the message is rude and/or tries to bully you, laugh in their face at their suggestion. Trust me when I tell you that you will probably be the first to have done it. I hate bullies. The thought of someone using intimidation to take advantage of someone sends me through the ceiling. If you can’t do it, tell them you heard Kel Kelly may be able to help them and send them my way. Haha!

Disclaimer: The good news is that the peeps who try pimping the above scenarios are the exceptions. The vast majority of marketing people seeking agency services are honest and hardworking. Quite frankly, having the opportunity to help these people is one of the many reason I and others like me do what we do.

Posted by Kel | in Featured, Uncategorized | 34 Comments »

34 Comments on “It’s “Agency” Not “Slavery””

  1. Sally DeAngelis Says:

    Ha! This is good stuff, Kel. I can relate to it as a former development/grantwriter for non-profits. Often times was asked if I would suspend my fee/payment after funding received… Huh? It just doesn’t work that way.
    I enjoy your blogs…one thing I can say makes me squirm a bit, if I may be so bold, is the crack pipe metaphor. I get it, mind you, I’m just not ready to accept it…

  2. Ben Carcio Says:

    K – I agree with the no asshole policy. One disagreement. Budgets are the “salary cap” of this league, so they will always be a major part of the equation. So, some of what you outline is just inexperienced people trying to do whats best for their company. I’ve said some of what you said, probably to you, but Im glad nobody walked away. Many of my agency contacts, I consider some of my best friends in the business.

    So my one caviat would be, don’t work with assholes, but if somebody says one of the above and they are a good but headstrong young entrepanuer, work with them on why their suggested approach won’t work.

    Now, get back to the beach Kel.


  3. Kel Says:

    sal, it’s good to see you comment here. i love hearing from you on facebook, but i think you will bring an interesting perspective that will generate good threads of conversation on the blog. i really respect that you brought up your feelings regarding the use of “crack pipe.” i can appreciate why that may not be funny to many whose lives have been negatively affected by that substance. as you can tell, i use the term often. i appreciate you bringing it to my attention. i can’t guarantee i will never use it again, but i will certainly think twice. hope to see you here again!

  4. Kel Says:

    ben, i agree with you a 100%. it really should be the asshole factor being evaluated. as you know most of my clients are entrepreneurs. there is a huge difference in doing something for a tremendously grateful entrepreneur who has a limited budget than an asshole just trying to abuse you.

    what i love about us is that we can emphatically disagree about something and then go have a beer together. btw, not at the beach yet. my teenage sons are taking their last exams this afternoon and then we’ll scoot down for a quick overnight. hope to see you there this summer! baby required.

  5. Aaron Says:

    Kel – First time caller, long time listener. You know I love you, but clients will always ask for what they want (and more) and agencies should guide them towards what the client needs and the agency can provide. Budget issues are real and we’re asked to continue to stretch every dollar. That’s where good agencies (like yours) can shine. Love the blog!

  6. Kel Says:

    aaron, thanks for dialing in. i totally get how it works since i spent the majority of my career on the client side. there is a huge difference between stretching a dollar and the scenarios described above. i agree the agency needs to guide the client and appreciate you bringing it up. you guys are the bomb diggity. if the client landscape were peppered with clients like you, agencies would wake up every morning with birds chirping on their shoulders and butterflies tickling their noses.

  7. Larry Lawfer Says:

    This week I had an agency that specializes in writing ask me to give them the keys to the city, my city that I have built over 28 years of experience. I was introduced to them by a design firm I collaborate with. I met the principal about a year ago where I shared a lot of what I do and how I do it in the hopes of collaborating with them on the video side of their writing projects. I bought the meal.
    Last week they sent out a promo using video and touting their new abilities. I wrote them and acknowledge the humorous content–no real marketing message, just funny stuff to attract clients. I mentioned it reminded me of someone else’s work. Funny, the principal had worked for that person–no surprise. Then she went on in all seriousness to ask me how I charge for what I do, how many people I use and how to get the client to pay for the work. Huh? I went from a potential collaborator, to their informational kiosk. WTF, it doesn’t hurt to ask, I guess. It also didn’t hurt for me to write her back and say, good luck with this. When your clients need experienced professionals to work with have them call me. Geez.

  8. Kel Says:

    larry, that is so disheartening after you were so gracious. it must be hard not to be guarded in future similar situations.i believe that no deed goes unnoticed and no debt goes unpaid. as such, this person will soon be on the receiving end of some negative situation. as always, thanks for sharing your perspective.

  9. Jon Bornstein Says:

    Kel, as always, reading your blog makes me laugh and think at the same time!

  10. Kel Says:

    jon, thanks for the feedback. i guess that’s as good as it gets! as always, thanks for taking the time to read my post. given the tsunami of content available on the internet, i am humbled that people choose to read my blog.

  11. Kari Hanson Says:

    Your post hit a nerve that drove me to finally comment w/my two cents. I spent long enough at an agency to say that clients who use the scenarios above view the relationship as a client/vendor one (fueled, most likely, by the agency doing the same – charging $50 for donuts for a 10 a.m. meeting, invoicing for magazine subscriptions that they should be reading anyway, charging for phone/fax/printing, or even letting a startup pay $1500 to issue a press release when $300 would cover it on the major wires). It’s the same relationship as buying a car, so of course the client is going to try and get whatever they can for the least amount. If the agency/company relationship is truly a partnership, though, the agency will strive to find efficiencies in the program (even if it lowers their total billing) to help the client maximize results, and the client will want the the relationship to be profitable for the agency. The best results always come from the agency team that is respected (including being paid fairly), and the biggest budgets always come from the companies who see value and aren’t nickel and dimed each month.

  12. Jenn Says:

    Kel – a fantastic post that brought me back to my agency days. As Kari Hanson said, the best clients were always the ones who understood that, in order to be successful, their agency needed to be successful. The clients willing to extend a relationship built on mutual success always benefited. They got the best of everything: the best account team, best creative, best media deals, mainly because the agency team was willing to go out and bat a home run each and every time. The worst clients were the ones who not only “nickled and dimed” each and everything, but curiously enough, couldn’t commit to a strategy and would go around the merry-go-round of creative concepts just because they felt like they got the most value by being a jerk to work with.

    Other than some people are just tools to work with, I think sometimes what happens is that people on the client side work with some not-so-great agencies. They may have paid a lot of money for a web site that was a template design (that 20 other companies had), they were over-promised media placements, went through the misfortune of a “bait and switch” client team, or XYX project ended up costing 50% more than the RFP bid because an agency was disingenuous. When people have worked with bad agencies, they make all the good agency peeps suffer.

  13. Kel Says:

    kari, i totally agree with you. when i was the client hiring agencies, the nickle and diming that went along with fees made me nuts. i agree a true partnership means being fair on both sides. when i started kel & partners seven years ago, i set off to build the “anti-agency agency.” this meant not doing all the dicking that agencies used to do to me as the client so they could make more money. as an example, we don’t have billable hours at k&p. a true partnership really means you are in it together and great results are getting delivered at a fair price.

  14. Kel Says:

    jenn, sadly i have experienced everything you described when i used to be the client. the jaw dropping thing is some of the biggest agencies on the planet get away with such unscrupulous behavior. not sure why clients tolerate it. i never did.thanks for your comment!

  15. Shane Says:

    Hells yeah! In my freelance life I used to get this b.s. all the time. “Hey, do good on this job there’s tons more where that came from!” Sure pal, that and $5 will get you a one-way trip to blo*meville. This kinda crap is rampant in the freelance world which is a hellova lot tougher/desperate than the agency world. There’s always some slob out there willing to do a website for $500. And fortunately thats exactly what the cheap bastard client will get. I always tell all who will listen: we (creatives or agencies) should be looked at like plumbers, electricians or even financial planners. We all have references. Check em out. Ask for 30-50, not 1-2. Good agencies and creatives have ‘em. My screw you moment came once when I met with company big wigs who wanted to hire me. they said they wanted some ideas on how to position their new marketing. we met and when they asked me for these said “ideas” I told them that I’m like a painter/electrician, etc. and they’d have to “pay to play. I don’t give it up for free.” Guess the other potential employees/sheep never told them something so shocking. They asked, “don’t you want the job?” I told them sure. But you don’t ask a painter to paint your house and then decide whether you’re going to pay them. I stood up and told them, with aghast expressions on their mugs, “Good day, gentlemen.” And walked. Sa-weet!

  16. paula slack Says:

    Good stuff,

    Thanks for the sanity check, it’s not just me.

    They never make it up to you on the next job!

    Keep fighting,

  17. Mick Says:

    Hey Kel,

    Your friendly neighborhood Wordsmith here.

    Your verbal thrusts and parries always entertain and enlighten me – and this was one case where I just had to respond.

    Here’s one fresh from the front:

    Client: “Hi. Guess what? You did such a great job, no changes are needed. The Copy for the Web Site sailed through approvals. So seeing as how we did not need any Edits, can we talk about a price reduction?”

    Wordsmith: “WTF”?

    I mean, I know I am far from perfect, but I also know I pull out all the stops to get it “just right…the first time.”

    So it was a bit of a stunner.

    I mean, as a Client, you FINALLY get someone who knocks one out of the park…

    Someone who gets your program…who makes your job easier….

    And you want to cut down what you already agreed to pay?

    Holy NET 30!

    O well. All’s well that ends well.

    I got paid.

    And for some reason, this Quote kept going through my mind…

    “This…(choke…gasp…rasp)…is the business….(gasp….hack…choke)…we’ve chosen…”

    Hyman Roth, Godfather II

    ( I took a little editorial license there. No extra charge!)

  18. Kel Says:

    shane, i love, love, love your “screw you” story. the best part really is seeing the look on their face. it’s clear most people act subservient to their approach. stay the course. it’s good for everyone.

  19. Kel Says:

    paula always remember — just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they are not out to get you. haha!

  20. Kel Says:

    mick, are you effing kidding me?! that is the most ridiculous bs i have ever heard. i just read your comment aloud to my partner who exclaimed, “oh my god!” honestly, if we had a hall of fame for this shit, your story would get voted in on the first round. thanks for sharing your experience. i’m sure other readers enjoyed it as much as i did.

  21. Dennis Franczak Says:


    It was nice meeting you at Bell Ringers! I loved this article. I LOVE it. It totally made my day because I’ve been hearing this crap from a lot of prospects lately.

    A lot of prospects are trying to use the economy to get a lot for a little and soon it’s going to turn around and these guys are going to wonder why their competitors have left them in the dust.

  22. Kel Says:

    dennis, great to meet you too. you bring up a great point. while a small number of companies are dicking around over fees, smart companies are going full throttle. as you said, it is only a matter of time.

  23. Loring Barnes Says:

    Hi Kel,
    From your lips to God’s ears. Yep, “it’s the economy, stupid” has been a convenient refrain of late. Only if you are prepared to stop work and/or walk away, which we have done, does the abuse end. I’ve opted for temporary investment spending, but that has to be conveyed to the beneficiary client as being an “exception” vs. “expected.” This issue boils down to one word: r-e-s-p-e-c-t.

  24. Kel Says:

    sing it loud, sing it proud loring! it is all about respect and it needs to be a two-way street. thanks for walking away when appropriate. it helps the bigger picture even if you can’t see the benefit at that moment in time. thanks for your comment!

  25. Lindsay Olson Says:

    Great post, Kel! The agency biz and the staffing biz are very similar. Lately, my response to these unreasonable requests are met with uncontrollable laughter. That seems to deliver my answer loud and clear! Just last week I was asked for the HR Manager of a company I have called on, oh, 20 times in the past few months, ask me to help with a search (after never once giving me the time of day in the past). After giving me the search details, she actually had the nerve to ask “Is there a fee? We can not pay search fees at this time, personal/professional recommendations only.”

  26. Kel Says:

    lindsay, that story is absurd! what the hell was she thinking. i’m sure your website doesn’t say “non-profit” on it. keep laughing. it does a world of good for everyone!

  27. Brennan Says:

    Great post. I can’t tell you how many times I ran into this when I was young and trying to start my own freelance service. I had a few medium size clients who thought they were doing me a favor by offering to work for them for slave wages. I found out pretty quick that even if you do a good job once they start getting exposure and money from it they will just run to a large agency and leave you with nothing. This post should be a must read for anyone in the service industry.

  28. Kel Says:

    brennan, thanks for sharing your perspective. i actually think freelancers get a harder time than agencies — maybe because the word “free” is in their profession. it must be incredibly confusing to many clients. haha!

  29. Lenwood Brown Says:

    High-five and yes I really did poop a Twinkie. Thank you for the post.

  30. Kel Says:

    lenwood, thanks or the affirmation and visual!

  31. PAN Says:

    The world needs more leaders and PR practitioners like you!!!! You’re funny and CORRECT on every item you hightlight. Presidents of PR firms need to ban together and teach the uneducated and NOT tolerate this kind of bull.

  32. Kel Says:

    i would stand by you on anything phil! thanks for taking the time to post.

  33. Christopher Says:

    Like any personal relationship, the client-agency relationship is a two-way street and involves give-and-take. It requres effort from both. Anything less, and you’re headed for a space in the “hot seat” on the Jerry Springer show.

  34. Kel Says:

    christopher, that is a great way to sum it up!

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