Fearlessness can go a long way in PR—even if it means firing a client
Greg Power is president of the Canadian operations of Weber Shandwick.
A couple of weeks ago, I attended FutureFlash 2014, the annual thought leadership conference hosted by the Institute of Communication Agencies (ICA), of which Weber Shandwick is a member.
The theme of this year’s get together was Counsel & Conviction, so unsurprisingly there was a lot of talk from the global speakers about the need to be courageous.
Courage, for the audience of agency and marketing executives, meant being “brainy and brave,” accepting the pain that comes from “smart failures,” and eventually becoming “comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
Internet entrepreneur and author Andrew Keen, for example, challenged big media to protect their content behind pay walls or risk debasing our culture while also damaging their business, threatening everyone’s survival.
There was an uncomfortable reaction, but Keen clearly relished the role of a cat among pigeons, even as many of those pigeons bared claws. It was the most controversial talk of the conference. It was also, obviously, the most memorable. And there is no courage without controversy.
This was exemplified by a presentation to the ICA Board of Governors from a U.S. agency leader whose business survived a near-death experience when a client representing 49% of agency revenue abruptly fired his firm after a change of CMO.
It was clearly a heroic tale about a strong leader protecting his people even as he fearlessly shifted strategy to rebuild and re-energize his business.
It was admirable that he was determined to lead his agency back from the brink by investing in thought leadership that opened doors to new clients and, three years later, the agency was back with more total revenue than before and double the profits.
A wonderful outcome, for sure, but something about this story did not make sense.
“How does an agency absorb so much new business and increase profits?” I asked. As it turns out, the client that fired his agency was a break-even engagement at best, one that had for a long time been taxing agency morale.
While a shift in strategy is definitely brave, it seems to me that real courage in this case would have been to resign the client first: accepting that initial pain proved in the long run to be a catalyst to a stronger agency.
It is never an easy decision to voluntarily part ways with a client. It’s an admission of failure, but it is often best for both parties and for your people. It’s a smart failure.
Several years later, that agency was asked to re-pitch the business. They did and they lost. But why bother? Why put your agency through it again? The integrity of that relationship was gone, and had been since before the firing.
Courage in public relations agencies is as much about our clients showing courage as it is about us showing courage. Successful agencies are driven by their passion for client success.
When it’s 2 a.m. and a client is in the office working on an issue, you want to be there. Their fight is your fight, and it’s all in or get out. That’s why you got into the field in the first place. That’s what you promised when you won their business. You want to be in the battle together.
I want to be there when needed. That’s why I insist on working with the right clients, and why I have no problem walking away when it isn’t right. It’s a personal and professional principle, and like any principle, you only know it’s real when it costs you money.
The flip side of being vigilant about who you work for is your responsibility to risk it all by speaking uncomfortable truths and being comfortable doing it, like Andrew Keen. A trusted advisor needs to earn that trust by proving that he or she will hold their ground on what they believe, even though a client is adamant about another direction.
It is possible you get fired for being a barrier to someone’s will, but if you are willing to put that at risk to do what you think is right you are more likely to move your client relationship to a new level of trust and meaning for both of you.
Over the years I have experienced a few moments when it was important to draw a line in the sand in response to an issue. It is never pleasant when someone employing you, who holds an opposing view, bears down to crack your resolve, but if you hold firm in your counsel you win a quality of respect that can emerge in no other environment.
A client who knows you are willing to be fired because you care about them is a client who will keep your agency a long time. It is not possible to work in this industry without some degree of fearlessness. Courage can be driving a bold, but risky idea forward. Courage can be standing your ground. And courage can be knowing when to say goodbye.
In work, as in life, you only grow stronger by facing your fears.