Most agency-client relationships have rough patches. But some can't be saved.
Jim Allman, CEO of Devries, was in a client meeting in which it was becoming increasingly clear that the client had already decided he didn't want to work with the agency anymore.
"He said, 'You agencies are all alike. You come up with this crap,' [and] he took a piece of collateral and threw it down the conference table, adding, 'Then you charge an arm and a leg for it.' I got angry, threw [more papers] down the table, and said, 'This isn't the way to treat your agency.' It was like two kids misbehaving."
Allman says he's never behaved in this manner and doesn't recommend it. The agency decided the next day that the relationship was beyond repair and called the client's second-in-command. Allman discovered that the company had already been talking with another agency. "Things are remediable when you can still talk," he says. "Things are not remediable when there's deception or dishonesty."
Steve Boehler, founding partner of the Mercer Island Group, has 30 years' experience on both sides of client-agency relationships. Almost every issue he's seen can be traced to lack of common expectations and communication in general. He says client feedback (lack of, inconsistency in, or not clearly defined); client-side changes; bad business results; and conflicts of interest (perceived or real) are the four most common causes of rifts.
"If there are cultural problems or personnel changes, find out what that person defines as success, and give it 60 days," says Marianne O'Connor, president of Sterling Communications. "Maybe it's remediable; maybe it's not."
If it's not, "make the transition seamless for media and analysts," O'Connor says. "Don't leave the client exposed. Say your goodbyes properly, and stay in touch with those you've enjoyed working with. I can't tell you how often clients who go to a new company have called us for that reason."
Nancy Ruscheinski, president of Edelman's Central region, says the agency was forced to resign an account after staff changes at a longstanding client resulted in abuse of agency employees. After addressing the problem with the client, rotating the team (many times), and documenting everything, Edelman resigned the account.
Severing relationships should always be a last resort, but it's important to exit gracefully when it happens. "If the agency is initiating the split, it is incumbent on the agency to propose a mutually acceptable transition plan with a lot of overlapping and redundancy, so there's no disruption to the client's business," says Ruscheinski. "Agree on a plan for communicating that the relationship is ending, and be consistent - internally and externally. Do not withhold information when a client is going through a transition."
Bad business results can tangle expectations and often lead to poor client behavior. "The agency [can be] made a scapegoat when expectations of what it could have produced [are] expanded beyond reason," Boehler says. "[It's] a way of diverting blame. Clients are almost always better served by keeping a good, experienced team in place."
O'Connor says relationships are less likely to end when success is defined and agreed upon up front, and the scope of work is documented every month. Measurement helps. "Things break down when there are surprises," she says.
Conflicts of interest are another major cause of trouble. Boehler says overly rigid definitions of account conflicts take a toll on expectations and communications.
Ruscheinski believes financial considerations are also a very common reason for parting ways. "Even bigger, maybe, is no longer being aligned in terms of goals," she says. "[Also] when agencies are viewed more as a supplier than a strategic partner." Occasionally, principles are so inconsistent that relationships cannot be salvaged. "If the agency code of conduct conflicts with the client's, [there's] nowhere to go," Ruscheinski says.
Boehler believes communication and aligning expectations can resolve most conflicts. "Overcommunicating is the answer," he says. "There has to be consensus on clear, commonly agreed-upon expectations. Because this is a relationship, and it can become very emotional, like a marriage, a third party is often helpful. I don't think there's much magic in who the person is, except that they're perceived as objective, and they have really good communication skills."
Make sure expectations are clear, agreed upon, and monitored during the relationship
Communicate regularly and honestly. Involve a third party if necessary
Formulate an agreed-upon, detailed transition plan, and be consistent when communicating - internally and externally
Lose your temper, or give up until it's clear that a relationship is beyond repair
Leave a client exposed, withhold information, or behave disrespectfully
Lose touch or burn bridges with people you enjoyed working with - or even people