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
No one likes to be an order-taker, least of all a company hired for its
’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
WARNING SIGNS OF A POTENTIALLY BAD CLIENT
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.