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M2M: Barb McDonald on Agency-Client Relationships
April 5, 2018
M2M: Barb McDonald on Agency-Client Relationships
Zhana Veleska

This week’s Marketer to Marketer (M2M) blog features Barb McDonald, CBD’s VP and Group Account Director. She brings over 20 years of experience in managing successful agency-client relationships for myriad multinational brands including CitiBank, Samsung and Kellogg’s.


It comes as little surprise that Barb McDonald has centered her entire career on forming successful agency-client relationships. As a kid, she often sat in a state of wonder during commercial breaks. She eventually developed a penchant for the “suits” side of the industry while studying advertising at Michigan State University.

Today, Barb acts as a catalyst at CBD, working closely with numerous clients and internal teams to oversee the delivery of quality creative work — but her work doesn’t end there. She’s regularly involved with pitches for new business, inspiring the account team and building up the agency.

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From your experience in the industry, how have agency-client relationships changed in recent years? Any new responsibilities?

It used to be more common for agencies to have more large-scale retainer clients, which meant that most of our time was dedicated to cultivating those longer-lasting relationships and addressing every aspect of the business.

In recent years, however, I’ve noticed a trend towards fragmenting business among multiple agencies that each specialize in different practice areas. That’s not to say that full-service agencies are being phased out – we just have to work harder in order to win every aspect of the business we get from clients. It’s no longer a given that you will receive it all.


What is your overall approach to challenging client situations with no immediate solution?

When working with any business, it’s important to establish a sense of trust between that client and your agency. They should be aware that you have their best interest in mind at all times when you are entrusted with delivering on their business goals.

I always try to hone in on what matters most to each client and figure out how to deliver on that repeatedly, in order to build and maintain that trust. By doing so, it allows the agency to be more creative and take ownership of the work that we do – which in turn makes it easier to arrive at a solution. This trust also enables agencies to lead clients to take risks in creative areas that they may not have been comfortable taking with other agency relationships.


What is the most understated aspect of managing agency-client relationships at an agency?

In the ordinary course of business, there are a lot of conversations and negotiating between the account team and the client in order to overcome any obstacles that arise – much of which the rest of the agency never sees. That’s where interpersonal skills come into play.

As an account person, you obviously want to keep the client happy, but you also have to ensure that your internal team is motivated. Trying to balance both can be quite a challenge, since you have to be careful with your approach in order to keep things moving forward as quickly as possible. There’s a lot of diplomacy involved.


What advice would you offer to a business that is dissatisfied with the relationship they have with their current agency?

I imagine those types of relationships began out of some form of desire from the client to work with that particular agency. If that’s the case, I’d advise them to take a step back and analyze the relationship to try to see what isn’t working first. It could be from the agency side, the client side or a shared issue which could potentially be resolved.

That would the most ideal route, because it’s time consuming to issue an RFP and try to find a new agency, especially for a large-scale client.


In your opinion, what are some must-have traits or skills of successful account executives?

If you want to be an account executive in this industry, you really have to be a master of multitasking and be able to manage a lot of details at any given time.

As I said before, interpersonal skills are also important. I’d recommend getting to know everyone in your agency that you will need to work with in order to get things done – from the creative team to the media department and so on.

Most importantly, you have to be professional in front of clients and internal teams. As an Account Executive, you’re expected to be a leader and you must be able to present yourself as one, even in nerve-wracking situations.


Have you noticed any commonalities among your most successful agency-client relationships?

A lot of the success of the agency-client relationship stems from the chemistry between the two. From personal experience, I’ve noticed that if they like working together, the communication between the agency and client tends to improve as result, which often leads to more clearly defined goals and a higher quality of work. The relationships really do make a difference.

Last but not least, what is meaningful to you outside of your leadership role at CBD?

My family is very meaningful to me — and that includes my dog. There have been times in my career where I’ve been so focused on my work that I didn’t give them as much attention as I should have. So, when I’m not in the office, I try to dedicate myself to them as much as possible.