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June 19, 2014
When An Agency/Client Relationship Goes Publicly Stale
 
Is there a difference between reputation management and sour grapes?
 
Last week, Chicago’s Cramer-Krasselt decided to end its relationship with client Panera Bread. Or so they claimed. In a rare public airing of grievances, an email sent by the agency CEO said that, when factoring in numerous client shifts in strategy, personnel, and demands, “no amount of money makes it worthwhile.”
 
So what does it take to get an agency to finally say to a marketer, “Take your account and shove it”? Does it help or hurt to make it publicly known? How much should an agency be willing to put up with when dealing with difficult clients?
 
Now, it’s worth noting that the client, in response, claimed they weren’t in fact "fired" by the agency; rather, the agency chose not to participate in a pending account review. But let’s leave aside the he said/she said of this particular case for the moment.
 
Someone once told me, “Clients get the advertising they deserve.” I’ve repeated that numerous times over the years. While marketers hold the purse strings, changes in personnel, market forces, and the overall subjectivity of advertising can wreak havoc with any agency/client relationship. If there’s rarely any consensus between the two sides, the work will reflect the chaos — and it’ll be creatively and financially ineffective at the very least.
 
And frankly, many clients have rightfully earned a reputation for being difficult. Just like people in business have a reputation for being a-holes or some agencies have reputation for being sweatshops or prima donnas. Clients put their accounts in review faster than ever and public comments are often made. These days, reputations aren’t secret, and there are even websites where you can rate agencies, corporations, even people. So for both agencies and clients, reputation management is needed both proactively and for CYA purposes if something goes south.
 
Rarely, though, do ad agencies willingly walk away from accounts and usually there are only a handful of senior managers at an agency willing or empowered to make that call. More often than not, rank-and-file people — the account executives, project managers, and creatives — have to suck it up and do the work even if the clients is unreasonably difficult and demanding. Incidentally, they’re the ones in the agency who often know what is working, and not working, in the agency/client relationship long before senior management knows. Being closer to the day-to-day work makes the red flags all the more apparent.
 
Cramer Krasselt is not the first agency to resign an account. But making it public is a high-risk, high-reward undertaking. Some commenters on websites said that neither agency nor client should be airing this kind of dirty laundry. Others said that the agency acted immaturely and that they wouldn’t want to do business with an agency publicly stating these things. But in an era where people preach the gospel of transparency and agencies attempt to define their own brands, isn’t that what’s happening here?
 
I’ll admit I’m a bit surprised at people who are inclined to think less of the agency for taking a stand. Would they advise their clients to never defend themselves or make waves as a brand? Would they themselves remain passive if they felt wronged? Frankly, some people and some businesses deserve to be called out for inappropriate behavior. It may be the only way to break a well-established pattern of malevolence. On the other hand, if a public shaming isn’t warranted, whoever’s doing the shaming will be judged accordingly.
 
So in this case, Cramer-Krasselt decided Panera wasn’t worth it. The reality is there is always some agency willing to step up when an advertiser holds up millions, no matter how difficult the relationship might be. Life, and business will go on for both agency and client. Some guy named Bernbach once said, “A principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money.” And with financial pressures on all us, more revenue — or a client that simply pays its bills on time — can trump any other kind of principle.
 
So it’s up to all of us — as individuals, agencies, and marketers — to decide for ourselves which principles we’re willing to stand on. Because sometimes, walking away is really the best way to move forward.

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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 


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