When should a PR agency break up with a client?

Breaking up with a client is hard to do, but sometimes the writing is on the wall. ID-PR recently gave rapper Drake the boot for, reportedly, being difficult to work with. (This followed the rapper’s very public complaints after being dropped from the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.) Marketing asked two PR pros to describe […]

Breaking up with a client is hard to do, but sometimes the writing is on the wall. ID-PR recently gave rapper Drake the boot for, reportedly, being difficult to work with. (This followed the rapper’s very public complaints after being dropped from the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.)

Marketing asked two PR pros to describe the signs that say it’s time to drop a client and how to avoid negative publicity about the split.

JULIE RUSCIOLELLI, FOUNDER AND PRESIDENT, MAVERICK

What effects does a bad client have on an agency?
A bad client is like a cancer in the organization. It causes staff to quit, other clients suffer, employee morale is low and the dollars are simply not worth the grief and aggravation of working with clients who don’t understand or appreciate the agency’s work.

Have you ever had to dump a client?
Yes, we had to let go of several clients over the past 15 years. Frankly, in hindsight, they are not tough decisions at all. Dropping a client is like passing a kidney stone: anxious and scared to do it, painful in the act, but so relieved and euphoric in the end.

Maverick enjoys the independence and freedom to pick and choose the clients that we believe have a great story to tell, a brand we want to worship and have people that we respect as our client. You must have all three factors in play to make it work. Resigning a client comes down to only one factor: the client does not trust the agency. The agency/client relationship is predicated on the basis of trust. The client trusts the agency to give the right counsel and advice and the agency in turn trusts that the client is honest, open and receptive to that counsel. Without full trust on both sides, there is no real partnership.

What are the top three signs it’s time to drop a client?
The signs are easy to spot:
• When a client treats an agency like a supplier, non collaborative, tactical and has a closed mind to new ideas
• When a client constantly questions counsel, invoices, and wants to implement their own dim-witted ideas, it’s time to move on
• When a client’s expectations far exceed what the agency can deliver, it’s time to cut bait

How can you spot a bad client before it’s too late?
This is a tough question, as the honeymoon stage varies once an agency/client partnership starts. However, when a client is continually questioning the work, not taking counsel and not making an effort to work collaboratively with the agency, it is a clear sign there is no trust between the client and the agency. This is the start of a downward spiral.

How do you avoid negative publicity about your own firm when dropping a client?
Keep the discourse between the two parties out of the public domain and act with grace. Agree not to discuss the situation. If this is a high-profile split, agree on a short standby statement that both parties sign-off on. And, as long as Rob Ford is still mayor, media have other interests and priorities to care about anything else!

SHELLEY PRINGLE, PRINCIPAL, POLARIS PUBLIC RELATIONS

How do you know when it’s time to drop a client?
If a client asks you to do something unethical, that’s a sure sign it’s time to move on. A client once asked us to include a quote from a celebrity in a news release, even though the celebrity had not given permission. When we refused to do it, our client responded by saying, “We’re the client and you’ll do what we tell you.” Well, we didn’t do it, but we should have fired them on the spot. Instead, we toughed it out for a couple of months and in the end sued them to get paid for the work we did.

How can you spot a bad client before it’s too late?
If a client verbally abuses your staff, refuses to follow good advice or begins to compromise the success of your projects, they are not worth keeping.

How do you avoid negative publicity about your own firm when dropping a client?
A firm should take the advice they give to clients faced with tough situations: prepare ahead of time and take the high road. In the Drake example, ID-PR praised the artist, spoke positively about the work they did for him, and then wished him the best. Classy.

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