Mark Riggs
Mark Riggs

As marketers, strategists, creatives, public relations and public affairs professionals, we know and understand the power of words. We arrange them and re-arrange them “just so” to make sure we’re effectively communicating, or not communicating the right or wrong message.

Often, we can’t help ourselves, and we use a lot of words, and instead of making a situation better, we get “wordy” to our detriment. Or more directly, to the detriment of the latest P&L report from your agency CFO, as is often the case with scopes of work.

Generally, when we win a new client or a new assignment from an existing client, we jump right into the work. The emails start flying, briefs are being developed, we try and “get them a couple of placements,” so we—the agency—can validate the client’s decision to hire us. What we generally don’t do is take a breath and discuss how we will work together, what the relationship will look like when it’s functioning optimally, or what we’ll do together to ensure the relationship is always improving and how often we will review the success we have had toward our agreed-upon goals.

From the moment we’re awarded the work, we should discuss our uniform onboarding process and how that includes both parties communicating their expectations of each other—because, after all, we’re in business together.

When you don’t express how you and your agency work, what you’re doing is immediately inheriting the negative equity from the client’s previous agency—if they had one)—or worse, falling into the client’s perception of how an agency-client relationship should function when they’ve never had an agency. Somewhere along the way, someone told me, “Unexpressed expectations are planned resentments.” And if the scope isn’t written in a clear, concise and defensible way, you and said client will land in the trash heap of unexpressed expectations, sooner rather than later.

In my 23 years in the agency business and my last five years as an agency growth consultant, I’ve seen indefensible scopes time and time again. These documents are often littered with what I call “The Dirty Words of Scopes.”

At the time of writing this piece, Pemberton has identified 18 words and/or phrases—it continues to grow—that leave us with indefensible scopes, inhibiting us from drawing a line in the sand with a client, so they—and we—know when it’s being crossed, leading to over-servicing. A few examples are …

  • Ongoing
  • As needed
  • As requested
  • Included, but not limited to (a personal fav)

Now, over-servicing is bound to happen to some degree, but with this “line” you and your agency can determine just how far you’re willing to go—or not. Here’s the thing: We don’t just over-service with time, we over-service with additional services that we’re not being compensated for, which leads to giving away too much time. And over-servicing leads to erosion of AGI, and if you aspire to ever sell your agency, that dwindling AGI ultimately limits the multiple you may be offered.

The scope of work is something that most, if not all of us, take for granted. We want to get something signed so we can get down to business and produce the desired outcomes. But as an industry, we must make the work feel tangible. Time, ideas, strategies, counsel … it’s all intangible. Our clients don’t walk out our doors with a tangible product in their hands as they would if they were shopping at their local sporting goods store.

Our clients understand the consumer dynamic of menus and pricing because they’re all consumers. They know they can’t walk into a big box retailer with $100 and expect $300 of goods … so why are you setting the expectation that they can get it from you? You and your agency must make the work and scope feel tangible and communicate clearly when the client’s requests/needs outpace the established resource. After all, we’re in business, and it’s already challenging enough without giving away your value, products and services. So, wash your mouth out and rid our scopes of work of these dirty words.


Mark Riggs is CEO of Pemberton.