Agency-Client Relationships: Getting a relationship back on track

There are many reasons why a relationship between a client and an agency can fail. Fortunately, there are many ways of salvaging the situation.

There are many reasons why a relationship between a client and an agency can fail. Fortunately, there are many ways of salvaging the situation.

Just three months into its relationship with interactive marketing services company CoolSavings several years ago, St. Louis-based Kupper Parker Communications (KPC) suddenly found itself in a situation all PR firms dread: Its client wasn't happy, and KPC didn't even know it.

"We were addressing a lot of things up front - helping them with positioning statements and formulating strategies - and we thought we were doing well and were on the right track," recalls Steve Richardson, VP at KPC. "Then we had a conversation with them and they expressed a lot of dissatisfaction. It didn't seem fatal, but it was definitely the warning shot."

A significant disconnect between agency and client can come at any point in a relationship, from the critical 90-day mark to several years down the line. However, it is a firm's initial reaction that matters most.

When CoolSavings waved its red flag, Richardson says, KPC learned that its client had been expecting immediate gains in getting ink; CoolSavings was measuring the firm's success by the number of media impressions it received.

"Our first step was that we made it clear to the client that we got it - we understood what the issue was," notes Richardson. After shifting to a media hit-centric strategy, the firm began targeting editorial calendars, holding weekly conference calls, and issuing monthly status reports. The new tactics worked: Three years later, KPC is now CoolSavings' agency of record.

Reexamining expectations and refreshing communications are the cornerstones of saving a foundering relationship, PR executives say. There are, of course, various underlying causes of such friction. Lines of communication break down or become underutilized; PR firms make assumptions that their new client is just like their old clients, and vice versa; and clients approach agencies as vendors rather than as strategic partners.

When these problems turn a relationship sour, both client and agency must feel they have the freedom to raise that red flag, says Heath Shackleford, manager of PR for healthcare provider American Healthways and a former account supervisor at Ketchum. The red flag and subsequent heart-to-heart conversations allow the problem to be caught, identified, and solved before it becomes irreparable.

"An agency must be able to say, 'Hey, we aren't getting what we need to be successful,'" Shackleford explains. "On the other hand, a client must be proactive in saying, 'This relationship is not meeting our expectations.'"

Establishing quarterly metrics and success agreements early on to determine achievable goals for a campaign will go a long way to meeting expectations, but actually following up on those markers will go even further.

"Without a regular refocus on account deliverables and strategy, an agency's work can go in the wrong direction," says Kristi Hedges, principal and cofounder of SheaHedges in Washington, DC. Client scorecards and weekly meetings in which new developments and expectations are shared become critical tools for both client and agency.

Meeting expectations, however, is often a matter of perception, and problems can arise when the client is not seeing enough of what the agency is doing.

Lynn Parker, principal and cofounder of Parker LePlae in Seattle, says that's when her agency shifts into an "over-communication" mode.

"Every single editorial contact with every single pitch is related to the client," Parker explains. "In phone conferences, we provide much more detail - the status of pitches, results, what's working, what's not working. We over-communicate to the point where they tell us to back off."

Parker also invites the client in to hold brainstorming sessions. "And then they're a part of the solution," she notes.

Sometimes fielding new blood on the agency side can yield a positive impact, says Joe Kessler, a partner at Shepardson Stern & Kaminsky in New York. The vitality and fresh ideas that cycling creates can give a campaign a greatly needed spark.

Personnel change on the client side, however, can hurt a partnership, especially when a marketing professional takes charge, says Lloyd Trufelman, president of Trylon Communications in New York.

When such new people - especially "MBA-types" - come in on the client side, their focus is strictly on quantifiable, graphable results, Trufelman says, and if the campaign does not immediately hit those numbers, the new manager gets upset. The only solution sometimes is a crash course in the nuances of PR.

"You can work out as many PowerPoints and spreadsheets as you like," says Trufelman, "but at the end of the day, a reporter just might not be interested in the client, and you've got to explain that to the new guy."

As a last resort, Shackleford says, you can also simply start from scratch.

"There are times when you have to wipe the slate clean and start over," he says. "You do day one over again and [reestablish] the expectations and goals."

Of course, in other instances, the best solution is ultimately to end a relationship. Impenetrable philosophical differences in how a campaign should be carried out usually spells doom, as do ethical violations, criminal behavior, and unacceptable personality clashes, such as when clients are abusive to the agency's personnel.

For Parker, a relationship has run its course when a client tries to completely micromanage the campaign or when both sides are no longer having fun.

Parker says her agency has a simple test to determine such cases. "If your team members would rather have a root canal than meet with the client, it's time to call it quits."


Technique tips

Do allow both sides to raise red flags when problems arise

Do over-communicate via conference calls, meetings, and updates; when a client asks you to curtail your communication, things are back on track

Do add a new member to your team to reinvigorate a campaign

Don't wait for the client to express frustration; if you're not having fun, the client isn't either

Don't cover up a problem or pretend it doesn't exist; it will always come to the surface later and usually be even worse

Don't be afraid to end a relationship; sometimes saying goodbye is your best bet

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