It is always a difficult call to decide whether I want to work with a specific company or marketing director – especially when it involves the execution of a poor strategy that the company or executive had already devised. We often find ourselves weighing the obvious benefit of the monthly retainer against the possible damage that a bad company, person, or strategy can do to our firm, staff, and image.
Over the last fifteen years, I have worked in-house for multiple companies, invested in others, and started two marketing and communications agencies of my own. All of these experiences have taught me a lot – including the fact that it is tough in today’s economy to turn down a retainer, dismiss a client, or think about your brand before anything else.
More recently, I have met with hundreds of companies looking for success in one way or another. Many of them look to partner with my firm to help them with their business and marketing strategies, their efforts to obtain funding, and their specific public relations, social media, SEO, and other inbound- and outbound-marketing tactics. In such ways, most of these businesses look towards us as partners and experts. But others view us as soldiers who should merely take marching orders.
Front and center soldier
Here is the crucial difference: Companies who look at agencies as soldiers to command will struggle, but those who view them as partners will win the marketing battle. So, it is a difficult balancing act for the CEO of any professional-service firm. Does the retainer justify the stress of dealing with the client – especially when the client’s approach will make it harder to succeed? Partners work together. Clients dictate what they want.
In a recent post, “Lead or be Led: A PR and Marketing Manager’s Guide to Success,” I pointed out three important signs that a client relationship will be difficult:
- Wanting “Yes Men.”
- Hiding Information
- Thinking All Companies Are the Same
I recommend reading the post before continuing. Here, I wanted to discuss a few additional types of clients and situations that can negatively affect your agency’s brand (if you choose to work with them). If a potential client does any of these things or acts in any of these ways, run away before they will hurt your firm’s reputation:
- Not understanding how PR truly works. Clients often compare their coverage to that of companies that are out of their league: “This company is getting in this publication, why can’t we?” If educating them on how public relations works – and does not work – does not help them to understand, run.
- Not giving full access. As I had mentioned before, if you are working with a start-up that does not allow you to speak with the CEO, run.
- Not listening. If the company is still struggling to get market share after several years and is not listening to your expert advice, run.
- Not changing targets when needed. When you recognize that the business is targeting the wrong market but will not pivot, run.
- Not resisting investor interference. When one or more investors strangle the company when the company is failing, run.
- Not using positive messaging. When the company wants to market its product with the use of scare tactics, run.
- Not giving good direction. When a client simply wants to give you directions (which is bad enough) that will hurt the chance of success, run.
- Not willing to stand on their own merits. When you are directed to feature your agency on a client’s press release, run.
- Not having the faith of your employees. When your clients makes your employees nuts, run.
- Not protecting your brand. When you realize that a client may ruin your agency’s brand for any of these reasons or others, run as fast as you can.
Nothing shameful about a tactical retreat
It’s indeed difficult to part ways with a client when you have a personal relationship with your contact. Still, the personal bias can interfere with your objective understanding of the outside reputation of the company’s stability, vision, and direction. You might be doing everything to help a well-connected client, but taking and executing his or her misinformed strategy can result in a slow death – not only for the company but also for your agency.
In many cases, we work within a specific region, a certain industry, or with individual Angels and VCs who hear opinions of clients and make quick judgments – and one negative account can taint your reputation, even when it is solely off-base. In my years in the industry, cutting the bait and throwing the fish back is the better option. The rumour mill alone can stunt your agency’s growth. Below are three examples of how a client can hurt your brand:
- If a client filed their S1 for the IPO and you saw it over the wire, you have a problem. In this case my firm terminated the agreement.
- If a client is dictating and asking you just to implement a strategy that is bound to fail, it is time to leave because when you fail, the client will not speak highly about your firm.
- If their expectations are out of line with reality – such as wanting coverage from the big high-tech blogs when the company is not really in that exact sector — it may be important to cut ties because the results will be hard to meet.
When you’re focusing too much energy on a tough client, other accounts will suffer, staff moral will decline, and the positive energy in the office will become negative. Is it worth it? It is important to know how to break away from a client in the correct way. A PR Daily article by Ed James on the dos and don’ts of breaking up with a client provides some great examples:
Do remember that it’s not personal; it’s business. Walk the client through the ‘breakup’ process, detailing what your agency will provide so that they will know what to expect.
Do provide the departing client with a full complement of tools. At your final meeting, give them your agency’s wrap-up reports, pending pitches, copies of all releases and materials you’ve sent on their behalf, and a round-up of any ‘dangling’ stories that are committed but haven’t yet run.
Do maintain the relationship after the split. Continue to stay in touch with updates and feedback regarding relevant information on the client’s business and industry. Invite staff from the company to events or out for a drink or coffee.
Don’t give away everything in your arsenal. Take the professional high road—but don’t give away the whole enchilada of items including media lists, the full blueprint of what your next steps would have been, and the cell-phone numbers for your key press contacts. Be fair, but don’t overextend.
Don’t cut them off. Remember, the way they’ll come back is if you leave things open and comfortably professional. Business break-ups are not the time for drama. Play it easy.
Working with start-ups and hard-headed individuals can sometimes do more damage to your brand than what a retainer is worth. Agencies today have to protect their brands, employees, and reputations from clients when it is clear that there is no way to succeed and no good possible outcome. Firms today should walk away from companies and people that suffocate them, think about the opportunity-costs of everyone’s time, and focus on bringing in better accounts instead. When you are an agency that can show great results, stay away from the one or two companies that can spoil the day, your employees, and your reputation.