COMMENT: PLATFORM; Sometimes breaking up is all there is to do

If a client account isn’t working, agencies must be confident enough to realise the best thing is to drop it, says Judith Bell

If a client account isn’t working, agencies must be confident enough to realise the best thing is to drop it, says Judith Bell

Did they jump or were they pushed? Primarily driven by clients, the PR

industry cycle of account reviews dictates the fortunes of most

agencies. However, it’s the independence and objectivity of the agency

that makes its services necessary in the first place. So why don’t more

agencies see themselves as driving the review process, ensuring a

position to dictate their own fortunes?

When the health of a client account is in question, much soul searching

and corridor walking takes place. Combined with review and analysis, the

conclusions usually point to a re-focus or new approach. When the

relationship is fundamentally healthy this refreshed understanding is

all that’s needed. But, in some cases the agency cannot justify the

retention of its services and the account is lost. Just as often,

however, problems with an account are not the result of poor agency

performance but of a fundamentally bad fit between two company cultures.

Having tried all the intelligent fixes, but recognising the basic

culture flaw, an agency should be prepared to initiate the end of the

relationship. More typically, it is driven by an instinct to keep its

accounts at almost any cost.

But it’s not simply the retention and development of business that

defines a successful agency, it’s the retention and development of

satisfied and challenged staff. Maintaining a good client list is no

good without the maintenance of a strong company culture. If an agency’s

sole driver is fee and account development, and its culture is subverted

in the process, longer term development becomes ever more restricted.

To maintain its integrity and culture an agency needs to satisfy the

varied needs of many clients, without undermining its own development.

This means weighing the perceived prestige of all accounts against the

impact of each client’s culture on the long-term health of the agency.

Two companies may have quite different cultures, but if there’s a mutual

respect for the integrity of both, and the work is good, the account

will thrive. If however, the client’s culture requires the total

malleability of the agency, the relationship will ultimately flounder

and hinder the development of both organisations. In the frenzy of a new

pitch, even the most focused agency can be swept into the pursuit of an

incompatible client. Eventually the cultures will clash and the working

relationship will deteriorate. No amount of rationale will fix such a

fundamental flaw and the pursuit of such a fix will soon undermine

agency morale, impacting previously problem-free accounts.

The hard part is recognising the point when the relationship is clearly

not working, then taking the decision to determine the outcome. By

building a client portfolio where no single account dominates the well-

being of the agency, such a decision will never be pain-free, but it

should always be an option.

By resigning the client on the grounds of a poor culture match, the

agency maintains its identity and avoids being drained by persistent

attempts to save an irretrievable account. As the agency demonstrates

its conviction, rather than limping towards the inevitable showdown,

both client and agency are encouraged to enter subsequent pitches with

the issue of compatibility much higher on the agenda. Next time, with

the basics in place, both parties can focus on getting the job done and

having some fun doing it.

Judith Bell is associate director of Noiseworks

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