Navigating Scope Creep and Tough Client Conversations

Navigating Scope Creep and Tough Client Conversations

For the advertising or marketing agency that has put in the hard work to earn a new contract with a client, these are the tough conversations. What starts out as a manageable and profitable scope of work, can quickly balloon out of control if not managed properly. Agencies then face the delicate task of setting boundaries with the client without damaging the relationship. 

A client’s inclination is, understandably, to try and get more work for less money. However, in a highly competitive landscape where many agencies are quite willing to cover extra work for free, the onus is on the agency to manage those costs while still adding value (to ensure return work). In the current marketing ecosystem, this unbalanced relationship leads to clients feeling comfortable asking for more and agencies faced with decisions to make. 

Scope creep is a real issue that can strain the resources and profitability of an agency. So how does an agency say “no” to out-of-scope requests while still appearing to be a valuable partner? It starts with changing the focus of the conversation from cost to value and setting mutually understood expectations at the outset.

Create a Plan and Prepare

Most agencies are enthusiastic about their clients. They want to be there for them, be nimble, and do whatever it takes for clients to be successful. That said, early in the relationship, agencies have to be flexible as they learn to anticipate a client’s needs. In fact, sometimes even clients don’t always know everything they will need. Agencies have to find a balance between being able to plan ahead and being responsive to unexpected requests. 

One way to prepare is to set a fixed price for additional projects ahead of time. This is especially helpful in situations where clients have last-minute changes or quick-turn, opportunistic projects and there is not enough time for a back-and-forth price negotiation. Setting fixed prices ensures the agency can be as helpful, nimble, and transparent as possible without disrupting the current workload. It also manages the expectations of the client, who knows that if they tack on something else, costs will predictably go up.

Review and Gain Understanding

Once a client and agency have worked together for a while, it’s a good idea to do a look-back and review how well both parties adhered to the plan. I recommend that this be a relaxed conversation in a less formal setting. The agency can frame the review in a positive way, such as: “We’ve had a great year. Now, let’s talk about what we did and what was expected, because we’re always trying to look back and see what we can do better.” 

The client and agency can both point out where it felt like there were pain points or friction. Take the time to list all the projects that were scoped out versus what the agency actually did. But emphasize how much was accomplished. 

Good documentation that starts at the beginning of the partnership is important because when it comes time for a review, the records help both sides understand where the cash (and heart) burn is. Issues are not always obvious or clear cut. But documentation might show the agency what they could do to be more efficient, improve, or optimize. And if a client has an agency partner they really like and want to use for everything, they need to look at that documentation and make sure they are not hugging the agency so hard they can’t breathe. There has to be a little bit of give and take.

Prioritize to Drive More Value

For agencies and clients in an ongoing or retainer relationship, the final step in the review process is to come to an agreement about whether there is anything currently scoped that needs rethinking. Are there things that could be taken off the table to make room for new priorities? Should the scope be more focused to put greater resources behind fewer projects? To do fewer things better instead of spreading ourselves too thin. This is where an agency can truly show it’s worth by honing in on projects with real value that drive the client’s business forward and minimize spending on tasks that feel more like busywork.

To be clear, this is an open dialogue and a chance for the agency to hear what the client really cares about. Aligning on priorities allows the client to get the most out of the agency’s capabilities so they can be a more valuable partner, instead of a cost center or expense on a corporate balance sheet.

Navigating a Changing World is Easier Together

Marketing agencies and the companies they represent have to be prepared to adapt on the fly to changing consumer preferences. But staying adaptable doesn’t mean agencies and clients can’t have clear agreements about what to do and how much it is going to cost. Good planning, regular reviews, and prioritization toward what has the most value for the brand are all great guardrails that can prevent scope from getting out of control. If an agency and client approach each of these steps in true partnership and have empathy for the perspective of the other side, they can both achieve a comfortable level of profitability and ROI, even as the world around them shifts.

As previously published on here.