Feature: Get in the ring, or make up?

When client and agency fall out, should the latter swallow its pride? Maja Pawinska Sims asks agency chiefs and a relationship expert.

Telling a client in no uncertain terms to ‘fuck off' - as PR consultancy Brazil's Joshua Van Raalte admits to have done at a previous agency - is about as sour as an agency-client relationship can get. The unnamed client, says Raalte, was ‘inappropriate' in its conduct and made one disparaging remark too many.

Although Raalte's tale has a happy ending - the agency and client settled their differences and continued working together - it is a reminder that in creative industries, conflict is almost a certainty.

According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), work-related conflict is on the rise - a symptom of employees working longer days with fewer resources. Recent research by the institute - which questioned nearly 1,200 employees across industry sectors - revealed that UK businesses lose 10.5 working days a year to conflict management. Last year, a report by management consultancy Roffey Park, found that 46 per cent of workers had experienced an increase in conflict.

A frosty issue
Remarkably few PR people were prepared to discuss their specific experiences of conflict. Alan Twigg, creative and planning director at Nexus, was one of the few agency bosses who was happy to talk. He says there are two main sources of conflict in PR: expectations not being managed, and personality clashes. He explains: ‘The moment an agency starts working for a client, it has to be open, honest and clear about what will be achieved, or conflict will arise.'

He adds: ‘Time after time clients get confused about why certain things didn't happen, particularly those who don't believe in PR 100 per cent.

I have also seen conflict surface when the client doesn't take to someone on the account team. In one case, an account handler was doing a terrific job, but for reasons I couldn't fathom the client didn't like her and asked for her to be taken off the business. I stated her case but I had to take her off the account - it became quite a painful exercise because she was upset and the team was upset.'

The CIPD found that employers trained in mediation skills were less likely to be involved in disciplinary and
grievance cases. It also discovered that two-thirds of employers in the UK go through some kind of conflict training.

Last month, Sara Burks, managing director of training firm Adaptis, became the first UK trainer to be qualified in US Relationship Awareness Theory. She urges PROs to steer away from the accepted view that conflict is inevitable, or even desirable. ‘Trouble comes when we only see things from our own perspective and judge people according to what we would do in that situation,' says Burks. ‘For instance, we all know glass-half-empty people who sit in meetings saying "we can't do it that way, it won't work, it didn't work when we tried it before, we can't take the risk". You may judge that behaviour as hostile and that person as not being a team player. But these people may be trying to say "if you can overcome this barrier, I'll listen".

In one of her recent seminars, Burks met one PRO maddened by a colleague: ‘Every time they went into a client presentation together, her colleague had taken charge by the third PowerPoint slide. She viewed him as arrogant and opinionated, but it became clear that [he just wanted] to be helpful.'

But some PR practitioners do believe that conflict can have its positive aspects. Andy Green, MD of Green Communications and author of Creativity in PR, argues that tension is desirable in creative businesses.

‘Creativity is about dynamic conflict, not about being stuck in a rut. George Bernard Shaw said: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man." The biggest obstacle to creativity in PR is practitioners giving up when a client says "no".'

But Burks insists that conflict is destabilising: ‘There are three stages of conflict, but only the first stage is healthy. Healthy conflict is when we understand each other's point of view. If the conflict is not resolved at this stage, or it just goes away, then it moves to the second stage - where we stop being concerned about others, and are just concerned about ourselves. The third stage is where we don't care about the issue behind the conflict at all, just about our own self-esteem.'

Alison Clarke, group business development director at Huntsworth, believes conflicts should be resolved quickly: ‘Most major gripes stem from quite minor things. It's quite rare that anyone does something absolutely dreadful, but some things can become big irritations if they are not dealt with. If an agency believes it is at fault, acknowledges the problem and takes steps to rectify it - and then puts processes in place so it doesn't happen again - most conflict can usually be dealt with. Many agencies hope conflict will just go away. Candour is absolutely the way to get through it - conflict need not be insurmountable.'

But others argue the onus is on clients to back down. Hugh Burley, CEO of Lexis, says the key is to recognise conflict early to ensure that working relationships are not damaged. ‘If a client is unhappy with its agency, [rather than get angry] it should perhaps apologise for failing to have properly explained what it wanted,' he says.

‘They can get a bit sulky'
One in-house head of PR expresses surprise at the extent to which agencies take things personally. ‘Some try and hector in-house teams to adapt to their strategy, and when you tell them that's not the way you want to go, they can get a bit sulky,' he reveals. ‘I wouldn't expect a management consultant or a lawyer to sulk if we didn't use his advice, but there are a lot of creative egos in PR.'

Burks adds a word of caution: ‘There can be unexpected outcomes here: the client might disappear for a while because it is unhappy, leaving the agency to think it is getting the cold shoulder. Or the client might say, apparently out of the blue, "If you don't sort this out within 24 hours, this relationship is in trouble".

She believes that successful conflict management is largely a result of emotional intelligence: ‘PROs who have good working relationships instinctively pick up another person's vibe and mirror it. The people with the worst relationships don't have this flexibility. They think "this is who I am, take me or leave me". If you want good relationships, you have to adapt. Otherwise accept you will have some difficult relationships. You can only control your behaviour, not other people's.'


Mark MELLOR, MD, Firefly ‘One client never paid us and it caused so much tension that the relationship broke down. We effectively paid for their PR to the tune of $100,000, and even at the end, they tried to negotiate a lower back-fee. After six months of getting nowhere I drew the line. They had a total lack of respect for our work - I've since talked to other agencies that have had the same problem with this company.'

Nigel CHARLESWORTH, head of PR, UKI Partnerships (Green Flag) ‘One of our agencies developed an idea on our behalf and we used it in-house, and that was a source of a big dispute. We learned our lesson about gentleman's agreements, and now make it clear that while we are paying it, we own the copyright and intellectual property of everything an agency does.'

Susanna SIMPSON, MD, Limelight PR ‘One B2B client had never done PR before, and within two weeks we'd got them into The Daily Telegraph. At our three-month review we were shocked that they weren't happy because they hadn't got any new business as a result of the coverage. I explained that PR wasn't like direct mail, and we were in the early stages of building their reputation, but after six months we parted company. A week later the client called to eat humble pie: a blue-chip potential customer was impressed with the coverage.'

Click here for this week's exclusive PRWeek/CTN podcast to hear Sara Burks discuss the harsh reality of conflict management in the workplace

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