The agency triangle

Most conven­tional busi­nesses – and service busi­nesses in partic­u­lar – are subject to the laws of the project management triangle.

It’s very hard to deliver high-​quality work, at a high speed, at a low cost. Optimising for one comes at the cost of the others.

Most compet­it­ive differ­en­ti­ation in busi­ness comes from those who find unfair advant­ages in how well they balance these comprom­ises. (E.g., an organ­iz­a­tion’s propri­et­ary tech­no­logy may reduce produc­tion costs, or increase produc­tion speeds).

But agen­cies and consult­ants – who typic­ally charge (at least in part) based on time – have another triangle of comprom­ises, which relates to how they spend that time.

They also have to balance commu­nic­a­tion, strategy and execu­tion.

Communication is time spent in meet­ings, discus­sions, phone calls, emails. A high focus on commu­nic­a­tion ensures that all parties have a clear under­stand­ing of what’s happen­ing at any given moment. A low focus on commu­nic­a­tion results in mismatched expect­a­tions, under­stand­ings, and frus­tra­tion; in the extremes, it de-​humanises the client-​agency relationship.

Strategy is time spent in research, plan­ning, eval­u­ation. A high focus on strategy ensures that the brief is correct, and gives the highest possible chance for work to be success­ful and impact­ful (and/​or that mistakes deliver learn­ings). A low focus on strategy risks ‘busy work’, failed campaigns, and unim­pact­ful consultancy.

Execution is time spent doing the work. A high focus on execu­tion ensures that deliv­er­ables are completed. A low focus means things don’t get done.

As with our first triangle, the compet­it­ive differ­en­ti­ation between many agen­cies often lies in where they have unfair advant­ages in these compromises.

Getting the balance wrong in either of these triangles often results in upset clients, and even­tu­ally, termin­ated contracts.

For many agen­cies, these are impossible comprom­ises. The resourcing, billing and commer­cial models of almost all but the largest or most expens­ive vendors prevent them from reach­ing ‘perfect’ in each of these areas.

That said, to a degree, you can ‘solve’ this second triangle by alloc­at­ing addi­tional resources (more people, tools, and paral­lel processes), but this expo­nen­tially increases cost. Or, you can commod­it­ise your services and reduce the surface area for ambi­gu­ity; but then you’re in a race to the bottom on costs-per-deliverable.

Inevitably, these comprom­ises mean that, over time, fric­tion builds up in rela­tion­ships. Cracks start to appear as expect­a­tions aren’t consist­ently or suffi­ciently met.

Clients begin to complain about slow deliv­er­ables, a lack of insight from report­ing, or that they’re not happy that they’re getting value for money.

These complaints – which emerge almost as predict­ably as clock­work in client-​agency rela­tion­ships – are the inev­it­able result of mismatched expect­a­tions between how the comprom­ises in both triangles should be handled.

Sometimes these mismatched expect­a­tions can be re-​aligned. An agree­ment to a shift of focus, or e.g., a reduc­tion in costs (at the expense of either speed or qual­ity!), can reduce or even reset that build-​up of friction.

But the most success­ful client-​agency rela­tion­ships are those where both parties are trans­par­ent and up-​front about how they determ­ine where, and when, to comprom­ise on both triangles.

For agen­cies, consciously and openly eval­u­at­ing, managing and improv­ing where they plot on these triangles is crit­ical to success­ful client relationships.

Failing to do so risks rely­ing on senior staff being lost to perpetual ‘fire­fight­ing’ (at the further cost of other areas of comprom­ise), setting low ceil­ings on client reten­tion levels, and on the prom­ises of compet­ing agen­cies always look­ing increas­ingly attract­ive over time.

If you work for an agency, where would you plot your compromises?

And if you don’t, what would your perfect agency look like?

Maybe you should talk, and align those expectations.

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This is some­thing I needed to read and be reminded of in my agency build­ing jour­ney, thanks for sharing.

Evan Waters

Hey Jono. I can empath­ize with the piece having worked as an inde­pend­ent growth consult­ant. I don’t think, however that the triangle is unique to an agency. Perhaps for front­line campaign managers it is differ­ent, but I feel that as one moves up the chain of command strategy, but partic­u­larly commu­nic­a­tion also play an outsized role.


“Clients begin to complain about slow deliv­er­ables, a lack of insight from report­ing, or that they’re not happy that they’re getting value for money.” Too true. From my exper­i­ence, this gener­ally is a result of the inab­il­ity to execute quickly do to A) unstable/​cumbersome plat­forms or B) there is some sort of bottle­neck with market­ing and an internal developer/​IT team; mean­ing, a deliv­er­able is turned over by market­ing and gets placed in some sort of queue with internal developers/​IT that is often put on the back burner. Client then gets frus­trated at the agency; mean­while, the prob­lem is often internal. The fault of… Read more »

Daniel Chege

Thanks Jono for shar­ing your insight on this topic, it really gives me ideas on how to run my website design and SEO company better. Keep up the good work.

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