Major client shake outs! What can an agency do to try and survive them?

fired(3)There seems to be no end to the ongoing shake outs and restructuring within corporate America. I can remember back in September 2007 when no less than 150 CMO’s lost their jobs in that one month. Updated surveys continue to confirm that the average tenure of a CMO is currently 17 months. Shake outs of multiple C suite members are also not uncommon. Just this month, both The President and CMO of Papa Murphy’s Pizza abruptly left to “pursue their own interests”.

We all know that this type of upheaval generally does not bode well for the agency. As I have mentioned before, currently about 75% of new CEO’s go ahead and conduct an agency review soon after coming on board. So how do you at least minimize the fall out and better still survive that interim period.

To be honest, in my experience there is no silver bullet to solving this issue. The biggest challenge facing the agency is their perceived alignment with the individual or team that recently left. Worse still, in other instances you might be seen as the leaders and architects of the current “failed marketing strategy and work”. The reality being that the agency does not act alone, and that much of the strategy and direction is normally significantly influenced by the client team.

Here are a few approaches that I have found to be helpful in similar circumstances. They have not always helped to pull me through, but they have certainly improved my batting average.

Know when the writing is on the wall. In my experience it is very seldom that a CEO or CMO leaves unexpectedly if they are being successful – other than when they leave of their own accord to join a competitor, or take on a larger role elsewhere. The indications of impending trouble are normally there:

  • Poor sales numbers, low response rates. The brand or company is embattled.
  • Internal perceptions that the advertising is not working. Worse still when Adage or Franchisees comment on how ineffective the work is.
  • Embattled client marketing team struggling to justify budgets and get approvals.
  • A sense of panic. Projects start and stop all the time. Tactics override strategy and there appears to be no focus.
  • Finger pointing, blame and politics are the order of the day.
  • The work is never right. Four or Five revisions are not uncommon. The client starts writing copy and art directing more than ever.

What to do during this time. It’s so easy for the agency to be dragged into the swirl of uncertainty, especially when you spend your time trying to second guess what the client actually wants. You start to doubt your own perspectives. You react by suggesting tactics way off strategy, just to address the panic of the moment. When that tactic does not work, you both try another. It becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.

Now I am not suggesting that you ignore the client and refuse to be supportive. What I am suggesting is:

  • Try and keep your heads while other panic around you.
  • Obviously react to requests or directives from the client, but if you are not in agreement, whenever possible, suggest an alternative approach and give your reasons why – even if it is never followed.
  • If one individual on the client side is the problem, try to carefully copy other client contacts where possible, to make sure that they are at least aware of your ideas and leadership.
  • If it has not happened already, arrange an agency/client CEO meeting to discuss the business and current needs. Use this as an opportunity to try to correct any misperceptions. If the CEO is the problem your only other contact may be a board member or holding company CEO.
  • Document everything, especially your response to those directives that you do not agree with.

Suggested actions when change of control happens. This is both the most critical time for the agency and normally the most difficult time to get an immediate audience with the new leadership. My suggestion is not to give up and to be tenacious about getting that first meeting as soon as possible. The longer it takes to get in front of the new leadership, the more propaganda they will have heard from remaining team members assigning blame away from them. Every day counts. Secure that first meeting and a swift follow up meeting with your team to share the agency’s position and point of view.




3 Responses to Major client shake outs! What can an agency do to try and survive them?

  1. KJ Rodgers says:

    I never realized that many CMO’s left that way. It makes sense, I just never thought about it. These are great tips for someone to survive a crunch and I recommend the agency/client CEO meetings.

  2. kevin tromp says:

    Some really nice posts Clive. Mature, well-written and based in real expertise. I’m suitably impressed mate. Best kevin

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