Analysis: How to divorce a client without bitter feelings

When agencies dump clients, eyebrows are raised across an industry that can ill afford to lose income. Peter Simpson looks at the reasons behind some recent high-profile walkouts and asks, is there ever a good way to say goodbye?

The former PR man for Cherie Blair's 'lifestyle guru' Carole Caplin last week quit the account citing 'other voices being heard purportedly to speak on Carole's behalf' for his decision (PRWeek, 19 September).

Clearly, the job had become so impossible for Ian Monk that, despite lean times for all agencies, he felt he could live without the fees from this particular client.

Monk's move is one of a number each year when an agency is not sacked, nor asked to withdraw gracefully or part with the all-encompassing 'by mutual consent'. Be it quietly or publicly, they simply quit.

Sometimes the post-pitch blues compels an agency to abandon the contract because the crucial client-agency relationship is on the rocks. Sometimes, as in Monk's case, hidden agendas are at work.

But whatever the exit route, quitting is undoubtedly an admittance of poor communication between the agency and the client - an embarrassing indictment for any agency whose raison d'etre is pristine elucidation.

Resignations are rare. But when relationships sour, is a walkout the sole option?

'An agency should never abandon its client, whatever the reason for a breakdown in relationships,' says Citigate Dewe Rogerson director Tony Carlisle, who last July resigned his agency from its long-standing account with Orange.

The resignation raised many eyebrows in the industry, as it is not often that one of the biggest UK agencies throws in the towel with one of the most lucrative brands.

'There was nothing acrimonious about leaving Orange. We remain on very good terms. There was a change of management and a change of strategy, and views changed. And we felt we could no longer represent our client as it altered,' says Carlisle.

However, CDR was soon after hired by T-Mobile - again raising more eyebrows.

This fact aside, Carlisle says changing account teams that work on a given strategy is one option. Failing this, a departure by mutual consent is the best and only option.

'It's a one-way street for any agency. It is hired to love and do anything for its client. But should a breakdown occur for any reason, be it conflict of interest or because the chemistry between people doesn't work, then an agency must step back and co-operate in any handover. Reputation is everything,' he adds.

When Monk quit the Caplin account, he found himself being contacted by journalists who'd been briefed that he'd been sacked. Monk says: 'At this point it became clear that normal rules were being set aside.'

What then, are the normal rules? 'When an agency or a client feel they are not getting value, then that is the time to quit entirely amicably, mutually and discreetly,' says Monk, who, it is worth pointing out, made his resignation available to the Press Association.

He believes the industry should recognise that agency-client relationships are finite. 'They will always come to their natural end. What's important is that you leave on friendly terms,' Monk adds.

Faced with growing speculation, he took the 'unusual step' of going on the record with national journalists 'to safeguard my reputation'. He says: 'I remain fond of Carole and think agencies should always maintain contact with clients after relationships end. But there are times when the situation becomes untenable with a client - a time when you, as the sole media adviser, see others controlling the message you are hired to communicate.'

Whatever happened over at the offices of SABMiller last April (PRWeek, 4 April ) may never be fully revealed. But there remains a distinct chill in the air between client and City PR shop Cubitt Consulting. Cubitt took the unprecedented step of publicising its resignation of the SAB brief - one of its biggest clients - following an emergency session of its eight-strong advisory board. Disputes had allegedly been raging for months.

Four months on, and ill-feeling remains. The brewer refused to comment at length, but when asked if the wounds could ever be healed between the pair, a SABMiller spokeswoman said: 'I doubt that very much."

However, according to Cubitt managing partner Simon Brocklebank-Fowler, who refused to be drawn on the spat with his erstwhile client, there are, three main criteria for an agency to quit: policy disagreement, erosion of relationships and commercial reasons.

'It is practice among many PR firms to resign 10 per cent of their least profitable accounts in order to show better end-of-term results,' he says.

Discreet, polite and professional partings are obviously the best way to do business, even when the knives are out. Except of course, as Monk notes, when the normal rules are set aside. 'From the national coverage about my resignation, I actually gained some new business,' he reveals.

For Monk saying goodbye may not be the easiest thing to do, but inadvertantly it could be the most lucrative.

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