PR TECHNIQUE RESIGNING AN ACCOUNT: How to know when it’s time to drop an account - and how to do it - The booming economy has brought to today’s PR agencies a problem that rarely confronted agencies of old: when to resign an account. Aimee

Just a few years ago, before the dot-com explosion and a booming economy sent marketing budgets and PR retainers skyrocketing, few agencies spent much time worrying about how and when to resign accounts.

Just a few years ago, before the dot-com explosion and a booming economy sent marketing budgets and PR retainers skyrocketing, few agencies spent much time worrying about how and when to resign accounts.

Just a few years ago, before the dot-com explosion and a booming

economy sent marketing budgets and PR retainers skyrocketing, few

agencies spent much time worrying about how and when to resign


Today, however, knowing when to end client relationships - especially

those gone sour or stale - is critical. Why? First of all, a bad client

can take time and energy away from more productive, profitable and

high-profile accounts. Second, keeping an abusive, noncooperative or

nonpaying client on the roster can cost an agency both lost revenues

and, perhaps, some of its best account executives.

’I’ve often heard the argument that ’we have to take or keep this rough

client - without it we can’t pay staff, be profitable, etc.,’’ says Joe

Riser, VP of the corporate and technology group at GCI Group in Los


’But often good staff members leave because the work is too stressful,

or nonproblem accounts suffer and are under-serviced because of the

’urgency’ of calming unreasonable ones, and clients are perpetually

unhappy, and often end up refusing to pay for services.’

Not that anyone advocates fleeing the situation at the first sign of

trouble. Like any long-term relationship, agency-client arrangements

deserve a decent effort at repair before either side throws in the


’You have to try to work on the relationship first, maybe changing the

account team, shifting the reporting structure or resetting

expectations,’ notes John Berard, San Francisco-based SVP of FitzGerald


That said, even Berard acknowledges that there are some situations in

which a dissolution is unavoidable. First and foremost, clients who

abuse agency employees should be at the front of the firing line.

If a client is disrespectful, ’then I’ve always said that even the

person answering the phone has the right to resign the account,’ says

Connie Connors, CEO of Connors Communications, who says her agency

recently resigned a big-name account because the PR manager often cussed

out her staff.

Portland, OR-based KVO, which was recently scooped up by

Fleishman-Hillard, resigned a ’top-dollar’ account a few years back that

never failed to call at 5 pm Friday needing something over the weekend.

’It was unnecessary and showed a lack of respect for (the account

team),’ says Nathaniel Clevenger, SVP for corporate relations at KVO,

who wasn’t afraid to show this client the door.

Similarly, when the agency role has deteriorated to that of vendor

rather than business partner, it’s likely a good sign that things have

gone south.

No one likes to be an order-taker, least of all a company hired for its

professional expertise.

’When you are strictly churning out press releases, just doing tactical

things, and when you are the last to know about critical business

decisions like a new ad campaign about to launch, then it’s a good sign

the relationship has died,’ says Matt Afflixio, SVP at San

Francisco-based Access Communications.

Equally detrimental is the client who jeopardizes a firm’s reputation

with analysts or journalists. If a client’s principals or marketing

executives behave in such a way to damage the agency’s cherished and

long-established analyst or media relationship - i.e., providing false

information, insulting or blowing off reporters - they are not worth

their fees in the long run.

If, because of internal politics or financial problems, the client can

no longer benefit from your PR program, that’s another good time to shut

the door. For example, if a client starts to fall down on his or her end

of the deal, says Horn Group founder and CEO Sabrina Horn, ’like failing

to deliver on promises in terms of making appointments, delivering

product or providing customer references,’ it’s likely time to get


Also, budget cutbacks can lead to irreconcilable differences. ’When

conflicts arise because the client wants more than the budget allows,

it’s time to say goodbye. Otherwise, the agency will ultimately get

fired for ’poor performance,’’ says David Paine, president of Paine &

Associates, a Southern California PR firm.

Even more basic is the issue of non-payment. ’Let’s face it: cash is

king. If you’re not paying your bills on time, we don’t want to work

with you,’ says Afflixio.

What’s more, accounts in turmoil require more attention from senior

agency personnel such that ’you may eventually start losing money on the

account,’ says Christin Campton Day, a VP at Schenkein in Denver.

There are other times, of course, when neither side is to blame, but

rather the natural evolution of a client’s business. ’The most

appropriate time to resign an account is when a client’s needs no longer

match that which the agency can provide within its core offerings,’

argues FitzGerald Communications’ West Coast head John Berard. ’For

example, for four years, Sapient was a core client. But they grew and

moved into new markets where another agency would be a better fit for


So once you decide to drop a client, what’s the best way to go about


Like the old saying goes, breaking up is hard to do. No matter what the

reasons for the resignation, however, it’s critical that it be done in

person, or at least over the phone, by the principal of the agency - not

via letter or e-mail, and not by the account manager. Also, most of

those PRWeek spoke with emphasized that it’s the client’s CEO, not the

PR manager or marketing VP, who should get this call.

As for strategy, unless the situation is rife with hostility, the best

approach is to emphasize ways in which ending the relationship will

benefit the client. Also, agencies should be clear and flexible

regarding timing, making sure to fulfill all outstanding obligations and

wrap-up all projects in progress, says Pat Reilly, principal of Pat

Reilly Public Relations in San Francisco. Reilly also suggests going out

of your way to help that client find another firm or line up freelance

assistance in the interim so it is not left hanging for long without



1 Little or no practical experience with a PR firm. No one has the time

to break in a virgin client.

2 No experienced PR person on staff. If your point of contact is the COO

or VP of marketing whose background is solidly on the advertising or MBA

side, you could be looking at spending lots of time explaining and

selling the benefits and mechanics of PR.

3 Disorganized or shifting management, or a questionable business


4 Exaggerated expectations of the company’s newsworthiness and the

likelihood of coverage.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in