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When Should An Ad Agency Dump A Client?

29/09/2015 8:11 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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By Prathap Suthan

If you are a client, I do hope you have a healthy and wicked sense of humour. In case you have any doubts, stop right here, and don't read further. This is going to be pure sacrilege. Unknown to you, the agency lot are also thinking, breathing human beings. And some of us, especially those with vertebrae, have a bit of an issue with being diplomatic.

Nothing is more rewarding than a client who sees the agency as its redeemer, partner, marketing department, brand builder, wealth creator and undying fan. Most of us have had the pleasure to work with some fantastic and inspirational clients.

But there are also times when you are saddled with clients who aren't worth your aching back. People and organisations so daft, you'd rather terminate them than self-destruct.

I once worked for a global automobile client who turned out to be the worst kind, and I bayed endlessly for sending them a sack letter screen-printed on a jute sack.

"I once worked for a global automobile client who turned out to be the worst kind, and I bayed endlessly for sending them a sack letter screen-printed on a jute sack."

However, the agency bookkeepers were too bothered about pending bills, so we eventually had to pitch a bigger automobile company, win their business, and then eject the offending client.

It led to some really red faces and redder egos among the client's office in India and across their global network. They couldn't handle the arrogance of this twerp of an agency to show the kind of gall we did.

You too can do without some clients.

Clients who don't let you do great work, clients who have stopped contributing to your bottom line, clients who keep you on a diet of insults, clients who don't share your passion. Clients who keep reminding you that they don't need you to tell them what they need to do.

But just in case you missed the signs, here are some telltale client characteristics or characters you must look out for. There are others that live among the offices that reduce us to vendors (yuck), but these are perhaps the more evident symptoms.

None of the jibes that I use in this article are specific to any of my clients. My agency has the best clients in the world, and till the time they inspire us to deliver great work, they will continue to be mutually inspiring relationships. Like they say in movies, any similarity to anyone living or dead is purely coincidental.

When the client turns Scrooge.

Here's the client who changes stance all of a sudden. Every cost, expense, investment has to be borne by the agency. Almost like it's the agency's fault that the client has to spend money to advertise.

This is a reflex to a cost-cutting drive initiated by the CEO, and it's a time when they'd like to evaluate all past spends. With supporting bills.

From here on, you aren't going for meetings on advertising and brand building. They will be all about haggling. Trust me, this relationship will lead you to the slaughter house.

When the client turns Cinderella.

This usually happens when the owner's son or daughter takes over the business. Armed with a fancy MBA from hinterland USA, this zero advertising brain will never get the big picture.

Do all you want, and waste all your adrenaline. Everything that you do will never be up to the mark, and everything you do will be incomprehensible.

You'll now hear nothing but criticism, blame and threats. And if you are not an agency making names in the wine circles, your time was up yesterday.

This pumpkin will explode.

When the client turns Piyush.

There comes a time when the CMO changes her/his role. Overtly.

Instead of ensuring that the marketing team gets their briefs right, the head of marketing suddenly becomes the CD on the account.

"Imagine you haven't delivered on a label, or a small proofing error gets noticed in the layout, and suddenly mobiles are whipped out and your holidaying CEO is hauled over coals."

Once in a while, all CMOs will like their pet idea to bloom into life. We will even indulge them.

There will be scripts thrown at you, plots suggested, headlines rattled off, references to Nike, "when I met Piyush," etc.

But when these become a daily affair, and when the regal curls of your agency's moustache droop, pull the damn plug.

When the client turns Titanic.

All of sudden, you'll notice that your client has hit an iceberg. There's been an inexplicable end to work.

Even a little sticker is on its 9th iteration. And the discussions are all over the place with hints of sarcasm and remorse.

Somewhere he or she has become unsure, rudderless and powerless. He or she has lost clarity, focus, and is possibly on grace period. Your bills, too, have been on hold for a couple of months.

This is a sinking ship, determined to take the agency down with it. Get out the lifeboats.

When the client turns Jellyfish.

This is a slight variation of the above monster.

This is about the disappearance of the conviction bone. When major campaigns are presented to the Board, or when budgets are shared with the CEO, or when a piece of creative has to be defended, this variety will make its appearance.

They will turn white, pretend to take an urgent call, or look at you with a pleading sweetness. Beware, this is poison.

Soon, everything you do will come back to you, everything is your mistake, as are the listless results of every campaign.

When this becomes a habit, stand tall, show spine and squash jelly.

When the client turns Shakespeare.

Ah, here is the drama queen or king. Nitpicking rajahs and ranis. This is when the smallest of mistakes assume the biggest of proportions.

Imagine you haven't delivered on a label, or a small proofing error gets noticed in the layout, and suddenly mobiles are whipped out and your holidaying CEO is hauled over coals.

Every client is allowed this show of power to belittle the CD and the Account Head once in a while. But if every meeting gives you the feeling that you are no longer what you think you are, that you are redundant, and you are no longer capable of anything right, it's high time to bring down the curtains.

When the client turns Hitler.

This is when the reign of the tyrant begins.

This lady or gentleman is all about telling you and emphasising where you stand or squat in the pecking order. Impossible deadlines.

Impossible language. Impossible tasks. Just to ensure that the agency is always kept in a servile mode.

Usually we revel in being challenged. When we go out and do things impossible. Pulling off magic, saving the day etc.

But when this begins to happen day in and day out, time and respect are of no consequence or importance, and every piece of work is a struggle to sell, then assassination is the only recourse.

When the client turns Al Capone.

Some of these otherwise incorruptible gentlemen have a completely different face. Slowly and surely you will be made aware of his penchant for the crooked.

This is when you are deftly asked to keep a cut on the side for the films that he is approving, or the print run he has authorised.

He is also pretty blatant about his appreciation of single malts, the next holiday destination he is contemplating, and his "I am so looking forward to some stimulating evening company during the film shoot."

Most agencies would rather not accept severe morality breaches. But if I were you, I'd call in the mafia, er... media.

When the client turns Unicorn.

For a client who was always accessible, you'll notice that you don't get to meet him or her anymore.

Meetings are called, only to be postponed. Appointments are given, only to be cancelled. Calls aren't put through, and the mobile is always ringing, never answered.

"Meetings are called, only to be postponed. Appointments are given, only to be cancelled. Calls aren't put through, and the mobile is always ringing, never answered."

Chances are the CMO is busy. But more often than not, he or she is talking to another agency behind your back. Or is too gutless to tell you that the relationship is over. Or has been instructed by the MD that his friend's agency will be taking over.

A client who strangely transits to the mysterious and mythical side of life is more than enough warning for you to see the last of this beast.

And when a client turns SonofaPitch.

I don't know why they do this. But there are some clients who believe that "I will call for a pitch" is enough to send their agency scurrying to get their brains back. Pity.

Fear will only make an agency timid, and not cleverer.

Ideally, call their bluff and tell them to go ahead and announce the pitch. Chances are they won't. The pickings will be slim.

Personally I love pitches. Because I believe that a pitch on an existing business is one more opportunity to show the client that I am better than anyone else.

But then, if every second meeting is to keep cribbing and keep echoing the pitch intent, sack the moron. He or she doesn't deserve you. Oh yes, and go change the P to a B.

***

Prathap Suthan is Managing Partner/Chief Creative Officer at BangInTheMiddle. Twenty-five years in advertising. And I still get into a sweat when I see a brief. Insecurity, may you drive me further, and my ideas closer!

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