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