The Agency Business: Main contact's exit need not end the firm-client relationship

Keeping a big account can often be just as tough as winning it, especially if the main agency contact leaves. But with foresight and flexibility, the relationship can last beyond any departure.

Keeping a big account can often be just as tough as winning it, especially if the main agency contact leaves. But with foresight and flexibility, the relationship can last beyond any departure.

Any good PR pro will tell you that landing a big account is only half the battle; keeping it is the tricky part. And that becomes even more of a challenge when the agency's main contact on the client side leaves the company. While such a situation does provide challenges, there are ways to maintain business with a client in spite of the inevitability of the revolving door.

"Marcomms departments change pretty often," says Rich Miller, senior PR manager at GroundFloor Media in Boulder, CO. "It's pretty safe to assume that at some point down the line your key contact could leave." For that reason, he says, agencies should prepare for that eventuality as soon as they win the account.

One way to do this is to make sure other people on the client side know the value of what its agency is doing. Miller suggests developing quarterly, or even monthly, updates that are sent to contacts throughout the company, especially the CEO, CFO, and VP of sales. "A lot of PR people don't do a good job of doing PR for themselves," he says. "Sometimes you forget you have to do the same thing for yourself [as for the client]. You have to raise awareness of what you do and why it has value."

Such updates provide executives a high-level snapshot of what the PR team is doing to support marketing goals. "If those people know that you're doing good work, and that you understand their sales and marketing goals, that you're doing your part as a PR agency...[it] will go a long way," he says.

Jim Barbagallo, a partner in Porter Novelli's Boston office, agrees that the agency's relationship with the client should extend beyond the PR manager or VP of corporate communications.

"It's very important for the agency to develop relationships with more than just the day-to-day contact on the client side," he says. "The goal is to develop relationships with all of the folks that influence the communications mix."

In addition to marketing executives, adds Barbagallo, agencies should form relationships with executives in HR, advertising, and branding.

"There's a great danger in hitching your wagon only to the PR manager," he says. "If you only have a relationship with the PR manager, you're doing your client a great disservice."

One way to solidify a relationship with those outside the marcomms department, Miller says, is by instituting an executive visibility program. Such a program allows the firm to have direct contact with senior-level management. "You'll be working on the events that they go to," he explains. "If you do a good job with that, they'll get to know you. Then, if a change is ever suggested, they will know enough about your work to say they want to keep the agency."

But even if your agency hadn't been planning beforehand, there are several ways to keep a client after the introduction of a new contact.

Lisa Ross, president of RBB Public Relations in Coral Gables, FL, says firms should not be resistant to change. "You may need to adapt your PR efforts and even your own personal style to solidify the relationship with a new contact," she says. "You can't say, 'Well this is the way we did it before' and continue to push that. That's just not going to cut it with a new person."

When confronted with this type of situation, Ross says her agency approaches the matter as if it were a whole new client.

"Offer to redo the whole strategy and goal-setting process so that the new contact sees [you] as his or her firm, not the one that he or she may have inherited," she says. "It shows them that you're open to change."

If you do discover that your main contact is leaving, Miller suggests offering to help with the search for a new candidate. "By doing so, it ends up being a win-win: The client gets some good candidates and you have people in discussion for the position that you are familiar with," he says. "It helps protect against the worst thing that could happen, which is somebody unknown coming in and having that immediate instinct to make change."

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Keeping a client

  • Develop strategies to highlight your work as soon as you land the account

  • Extend your relationship beyond the main contact; make sure you have

    contact with the top executives

  • When the departure is announced, offer to help the marcomms department in

    the search for a replacement

  • Once someone has been hired, be open to changing your plan for the client

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