When you first started your agency, you were so eager to strut your stuff, you weren’t fussy about what clients and projects you took on. As long as they could pay you, all was good. You never knew what each day would bring and you looked forward to it.
These days work isn’t so much fun anymore. You see some of your clients eating away at your agency’s soul. You think, “I’ve had clients fire me in the past. It took awhile to recover from that, but we’re still here and going strong. Maybe it’s time to fire a client or two. But how do I know which ones to fire and when?”
If you’ve reached that point, here are a few signs to help you decide:
1) Constant Criticism
The world is rife with creative critics. And nowhere is that more true than in advertising. If any criticism is spot-on, helpful, and presented in a way that creates a spirited constructive discussion, you welcome it. That’s creative collaboration, and it almost always results in outstanding work.
The trouble is that this client’s criticism is ego-based (He believes he’s more brilliant than Don Draper.), useless, off-target, and just plain spiteful. Every time he opens his mouth, your team cringes, tries to defend their work, gets spat on, sucks it up (he’s the client after all), and dies a little more.
That’s bullying. It’s not criticism. Don’t put up with it. Say good-bye and celebrate. Your team will get a huge morale boost and work even harder for you.
This comes in oh-so-many disguises. Look for patterns of behavior, which when viewed objectively paint a different picture than the charming excuses, sweet smiles, and innocent “misunderstandings” of your client. For example, the client:
Frequently calls all-hands meetings at agency to discuss some urgent, earth-shattering issue and then either doesn’t show up (with or without apologies) or sends her coordinator to tell you that [insert non-strategic change request here].
Doesn’t return your calls or emails as promptly as you return hers.
Doesn’t meet the turnaround times you agreed to.
Expects (and even demands) freebies -- concerts, dinners, trips, gifts/products, etc.
Refuses to talk to anyone but you. She doesn’t interact with the account team or doesn’t even acknowledge their presence in meetings.
Forces you to constantly justify your existence -- conducting regular agency reviews, arguing over time spent on projects or tasks, etc.
Constantly demands work outside the agreed scope of work, ignores estimates for the overages, and then gets angry when work isn’t delivered on time or gets a bill for work she says she didn’t authorize.
If you see any or all of these symptoms (and similar behaviors), it is time for a meeting to fix them, or else say “Ciao!" Your team will love you because they know that every client contract is precious. When you do this, you validate not only their importance to you, but you protect your agency’s “reason for being.”
3) Ignores or Overrides Your Advice
This could go under disrespect or criticism, but it’s worth highlighting. Sometimes a client challenges your recommendations. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Valid challenges can be the start of deep conversations that lead to breakthroughs and award-winning, wildly successful work. When such conversations are productive, albeit tense, that’s a sign of a deeply trusting relationship.
On the other hand, if her challenges are really hidden criticism, she delivers them in a contemptuous tone, or she overrides your team’s advice constantly -- all while protesting that she’s “just trying to do the right thing for the brand” -- she’s stopped listening to you. For whatever reason, she no longer thinks of you as a trusted advisor. She doesn’t value your point of view. Again, it’s time for a heart-to-heart conversation to see if you can resolve this. (Just know that if contempt oozes from her, there’s no turning that situation around.) No luck? Exit stage right, and find a better client.
4) Pays Late
With the exception of paid media, you’re exchanging time for money. Once time’s gone (i.e., labor), you can’t sell it again. Any client not paying you promptly is a problem. The smaller you are, the bigger the problem. Second Wind’s research shows that most clients pay within 34 days. If a client regularly pays on the same day every month (e.g., day 35), regardless of invoice date, that’s one thing. But if payments come in later than that -- it’s not good. How long can you afford to subsidize your client’s business? Because that’s precisely what you’re doing. Smart agencies address this the instant it happens. (Side note: charging interest doesn’t solve the issue.)
Get the client to fix it, for good, or walk away. It's better to have many smaller clients who pay on time, than a few big clients who pay late.
When One Door Closes, Another One Opens
The good news is that firing a client can be the start of something wonderful for both of you. As with any crossroads, it’s always a good thing to do a post-mortem. Examine where things went wrong and what you could have done differently that would have produced a better outcome. You certainly don’t want history to repeat itself, so if there’s something to be learned from the engagement, do so.
At the end of the day, firing a client isn’t the end of the world. To be sure, it takes courage. It also means acting professionally and with empathy, regardless of how you feel you or your team has been treated. You want to rest easy knowing you’ve done the best you can. Because as Dr. Seuss says, “Wherever you go, there you are.”
Originally published Mar 18, 2015 7:00:00 AM, updated July 28 2017