The Agency Business: Smaller client rosters can strengthen relationships for firms

When agencies look to put more focus on client business and to offer enhanced services, many decide that the best way for them to grow in the industry is to pare down their client lists.

When agencies look to put more focus on client business and to offer enhanced services, many decide that the best way for them to grow in the industry is to pare down their client lists.

There comes a time in every agency head's life when he or she sits down and ponders the company's future.

The moment for Maureen Lippe, president of Lippe Taylor, was during a lunch four years ago with late advertising great Jay Chiat.

Chiat asked, in reference to his agency, TBWA\Chiat\Day, "How big do we get before we get really bad?"

At the time, Lippe Taylor's business had grown to 45 clients and 65 employees, and she began to realize that she was not as personally involved with her clients as she wanted to be - or promised to be - when she pitched the business.

Lippe says the question lingered and caused sleepless nights. She rethought her business and ultimately decided to focus on strengthening relationships with fewer clients.

At the time, she had clients that made it clear that they had no intention of ever devoting more resources to PR, so she did not pursue a renewal when those contracts expired. She asserts that it was a very natural process and that she never had to discuss her change of focus with clients.

This year, Lippe Taylor has 15 clients, including Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, and Sara Lee, and 45 employees.

DeVries PR went through a similar strategy shift eight years ago. At that point, it had 50 clients, remembers chairman Madeline de Vries.

De Vries, at the time, decided to start having dedicated teams for each piece of business, instead of making account execs work on four clients at a time.

"We just decided we'd slowly start turning down business and start to grow with existing clients," de Vries says.

The agency's refocus came during a recession, when a lot of clients weren't thinking about expanding PR budgets, de Vries says. Then, "$100,000 to $200,000 was a huge amount [for an account]. But you can do precious little with that; you can't change how a product is perceived with that."

DeVries PR is now a 100-person company with 10 clients, including P&G, Allergan, and Gap.

De Vries says that the narrow approach also allows it to attract and retain a better group of people, the kind of employees who enjoy working with a single client.

"People who started out as our interns are now VPs on the same client. They literally grew up on the client," de Vries says, joking that some of her employees have been with a client longer than that company's own people. And she says that employees are amazed that they don't have to bring in new business.

Lippe's employees generally focus on one to three clients, but she also allows entrepreneurial staff to work on different accounts.

The approach also attracts better clients, Lippe says. "They're the clients who respect PR and [have a] vision to realize all the different things that PR could bring to them. These are not the clients who just ask for a pile of clips at the end of the year and that's it."

She says Lippe Taylor relishes measurement and even draws up a "contract of expectations" outside of its official contract, which both the client and agency sign.

De Vries says that clients notice the benefit in DeVries PR's approach.

"If I had to spend a lot of time on the road finding new clients, it wouldn't be good for the [existing] clients," de Vries says. "It breeds real personal relationships because we're talking to them five times a day. It's wonderful [that] we can spend every day thinking about our clients."

De Vries says she turns down anything that could be construed as a conflict, and she won't take a client who wants to do a three-month project and disappear. Indeed, she wishes more firms would adopt a similar approach.

"How can a CEO be in tune with 150 clients?" de Vries asks.

She jokes that with such little focus on attracting new business, the company might have forgotten how to do it. And with such a small client list, she acknowledges, losing a single account means losing 10% of your client roster.

But when the agency lost Old Navy last year after a six-year relationship, DeVries had two new clients before the company left. So apparently it still knows something about winning new business.

And it knows something about getting it back, too. Just last week, de Vries says, she got a call from a former client, who said, "We're ready for the type of PR service you're willing to offer."

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Pros and cons of having fewer clients

Advantages

  • Employees can focus more easily

  • Less time is spent pitching new business

  • Clients appreciate personal attention

    Disadvantages

  • Losing an account has more dramatic effect

  • Organic growth does not create buzz like new account wins

  • Employees might grow bored with a single client

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