Agencies and Clients — Dealing with a Break-Up

Nov 01, 2012

Al Topin
Unless it's a spectacular, fireworks-generating breakup of a giant client and giant agency, you don't often read much about client-agency splits in the medical trade press. While we often read about who's on which loose account or who just got assigned the latest launch, we rarely hear the backstory of an agency-client relationship gone bad and the decision to part ways.

So what's the big deal? It's business. Agency changes are part of the landscape. But the way in which a termination is handled before, during, and after can tell you a lot about the players and their future success. It's been said that circumstances don't build character, they reveal it. This is certainly a concept that applies here because how a company (client or agency) behaves in these uncomfortable situations provides insight into just who they are.

When a client fires an agency or an agency fires a client (yes, agencies actually do choose to walk away from difficult clients on occasion), it's usually not as dramatic as a movie breakup scene. More often it's a contract that doesn't get renewed, a declaration that "we're going in a different direction," or an admission that "fresh thinking" is needed for the brand. And, truth be told, it's rarely a complete surprise to either party. But no matter how the partnership ends up, a conversation happens and both parties move on. Usually one party is relieved, the other embarrassed or confused.

So is there any really good way to handle an agency-client breakup? Even if the relationship isn't salvageable, can both parties leave still friends, or at least with their business reputations intact? We think so. And here are a few pointers if you ever find yourself in this unpleasant situation.

First, try your best to fix it

Given the time, energy, and dollars invested in the typical agency relationship, it doesn't make sense to give up easily and walk away mad in the middle of a project. Stop, think it through, and put the issues down in writing. Then take the time to talk with the other party and try to find solutions. It could be a certain underperforming team member or a process that doesn't work. Set measurable goals for improvement and allow enough time to make corrections. Then, if it can't be fixed, you can move on in good conscience.

Break up face to face

If the first step fails and the relationship is truly over, the breakup conversation should be face to face. Not by phone, and certainly not by e-mail. If it requires a trip, then get on a plane. Given the time, emotion, and expense that went into not only the selection process but the relationship up until this point, both parties deserve the respect of an in-person discussion.

Be honest

This is sometimes the most difficult part, no matter which side of the breakup you're on. But it's worth it to leave the discussion with the facts (or feelings) on the table and understood by all. No sugar coating. No "it just isn't working out." Give the other party the brutal truth. Tell them exactly what went wrong and why it can't be fixed. Chances are they won't agree with your assessment, but give it anyway. It's painful but respectful. And it will help both sides in the future.

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