Agencies and Clients — Dealing with a Break-Up

November 1, 2012
Pharmaceutical Executive, Pharmaceutical Executive-11-01-2012, Volume 0, Issue 0

How an agency and client behave after they split speaks volumes about their culture and character, writes 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.

Al Topin

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.

Accept that you are 51 percent at fault

No finger pointing. No SOD (some other dude) defense. (In murder trials the defense often uses a SODDI strategy—some other dude did it.) Not here. Good agencies know what they need from clients to do their job, and they know how to get it. Clients know what they want from their agency and should be able to communicate that. If neither of these things are happening, responsibility lies with both parties, and both should take ownership of the problem.

End the relationship quickly and with class

When it's over, it's over. Although work in process needs to be finished, don't drag it out any longer than needed. Lame-duck situations don't help anyone. The agency should finish all projects efficiently and with attention to detail. Project files should be organized, inventoried, and transferred efficiently, not just dumped on a disk and sent. On the client side, invoices should be paid promptly and include those for time spent transferring files, recapping processes, and wrapping up loose ends.

Another thing to think about is the tone you take as things wind down. Remember that the relationship started with excitement and high expectations. It should end with the same level of attention and professionalism on both sides. A simple thank you or even a farewell lunch (not a celebration) can go a long way in terms of maintaining a good relationship. And assuming your last few meetings or calls aren't right out of Jerry Springer, try to stay in touch. It's a small industry, and we all know we will meet again. Better that tone be positive (and not awkward) the next time you find yourselves in a conference room together.

Answer the wake-up call

When something like this happens, it's a good idea to look closely and honestly at yourself. Not an easy task to do, but if there's any benefit to be had from this situation, it comes from a ruthless review of what just happened. So now's the time to ask yourself: Are our people up to the task? Do we need to examine how we're working with our clients (or our agencies)? Are the processes we have in place working or actually sabotaging all our hard work? And if you feel you were blindsided by the decision to call it quits, quickly review the rest of your business relationships—you may need a better way to monitor them to prevent this from happening again.

Gather your senior staff. On the client side gather your brand leaders and those responsible for agency/communications management and discuss how each of your agency relationships are managed: expectations, ongoing communications, monitoring, and measurement. On the agency side don't just meet with the specific account team, extend the process to all of your account leaders and account service team. Similarly review the key elements of account management and your overall service and production process.

While there are, of course, variances in individual accounts and brands, there should be consistency in the key elements that deliver extraordinary thinking, long-term relationship building, clear ongoing communications and outstanding creative work. If not, it's up to the management team, client, and agency to make it work.

Now get on with it

Finally, move on. Don't wallow in self-pity, don't dwell on what you (or they) could have done better. Just look forward to building better, stronger relationships in the future.

Agency-client breakups are never easy, but they are a reality of the business. Learning to handle them with professionalism, respect, and goodwill is critical if you want to make them few and far between. How do we know? Well, we recently went through a breakup ourselves, so now we're taking our own advice.

Al Topin is President of Topin & Associates, and a member of Pharm Exec's Editorial Advisory Board. He can be reached at atopin@topin.com.