Flexible thinking is the strongest defense

Focusing on past success and new ideas is key for any firm trying to hang on to an account,

Going into a mid-January account review with a consumer products client, Jeff Smith, cofounder, CEO, and CFO of JS2 Communications, was confident the relationship would continue. As such, he was shocked to learn the client wanted to let the agency go so it could afford to hire someone to manage Web 2.0 initiatives, such as maintaining MySpace and Facebook relationships, as well as newsletter writing.

“[The client] thought it had to be either/or,” says Smith, who kept the account after explaining that JS2 could take on the Web initiatives and the newsletter writing for a small increase. “Be flexible,” he adds. “A client may need a service that you offer that they do not know about.”

Of course reviews come up for a number of reasons, including routine renewal, management changes, or a crisis that's seemingly outside the agency's expertise. Smith advises listening carefully so that you fully understand why an account is in review before determining how to approach the defense.

“[Lately, many] clients have had to justify our existence to higher-ups,” Smith says. “Have a one-on-one conversation. [Determine if] they're hoping you'll justify your existence or if they're looking... to fire you. Try to understand what they're up against internally.”

Last year, Ogilvy successfully defended five accounts with government agencies, including the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Jennifer Wayman, EVP and social marketing group director at Ogilvy, advises “leveraging [all] you know about a client.” The firm has worked on CDC's colorectal cancer prevention campaign “Screen for Life” since 1999, so there was plenty to draw on.

“We worked from old strategy memos and conference call notes to piece together a sense of where they wanted to go,” she says. “We [stayed] in line with the client's vision.”

Wayman adds that “brand new ideas” helped Ogilvy keep all five accounts. She stresses the need to provide “a vision for the future” while also highlighting the agency's past success.

“Make sure 80%, if not more, of a proposal is new thinking,” she says. “We bring new ideas and new creative... because the competition [will] come in with things the client has never heard before. [NHLBI] appreciated getting brand new thinking with a team they knew. It was the best of both worlds for them.”

Sonja Tuitele, VP of communications for Aurora Organic Dairy (AOD), agrees that firms must bring “innovative thinking and fresh ideas to the table” in a review. The company is a client of Linhart Public Relations, and the firm successfully defended the account when AOD considered dropping it because of class-action lawsuits AOD faced in late 2007.

Paul Raab, SVP and partner at Linhart, saved the account by informing senior management of his crisis communications and litigation background and by presenting bold ideas for repairing reputation damage, which included creating a foundation to fund and share research on sustainable agriculture.

JS2's Smith notes the importance of knowing who is going to be in the review and tailoring the presentation accordingly.

“A marketing person is going to need more branding information,” he says. “A financial person [will] need numbers. CEOs usually don't want a lot of detailed information.”

Smith advises talking about failures if necessary, but stressing what was learned from them. “Make sure you visit the success metrics you set up at beginning of the account... [and review how] you fulfilled those obligations,” he adds.

Smith also emphasizes the importance of negotiating in this tough economy. “If reducing the fee is what [it will] take to keep the client and it makes fiscal sense, do it,” he says. “Make sure the client understands you're really thankful for their patronage. What we do is important to our clients' businesses, and we're thankful for that opportunity.”

Technique Tips


  • Highlight new ideas and past successes
  • Assess why an account is up for review
  • Know the audience and tailor presentations


  • Let agency capabilities go unknown
  • Be afraid to discuss lessons learned
  • Forget to leverage historical knowledge

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