Breaking Up Is Hard To Do: Firing a Client

Pack your thingsBeing fired by a client is an unpleasant situation, usually for both parties. Expectations were high at the outset, everyone was feeling good, champagne was popped, the PR machine started churning – then something happened. Sometimes it’s a positive outcome for the client, like an acquisition, that leaves the agency out in the cold. Sometimes there is internal change and a new direction or leadership that chooses to start over with their preferred firm. Sometimes it was just a bad fit and things didn’t work out quite as planned. We get it. Clients change agencies. It happens.

But what about when the shoe is on the other foot? Why do agencies fire clients? Well, first let’s acknowledge that it’s an unusual spot to be in for most agencies, but it does occur. I’ve personally had to fire a few clients during my tenure at SHIFT – one of the least enticing aspects of my job – and I’ve found that there are a few common reasons that agencies end client relationships.

Bad chemistry
We often think of this as a mostly a client concern – does my agency get me, will we work well together? News flash: we want to like our clients too! Nothing torpedoes an agency-client relationship like someone who berates the team publicly. Yelling at our staff isn’t productive or professional. It demotivates the team and generally creates a downward spiral of angst and angry outbursts. We expect clients to be professional and to measure up to our values – like honorable – too.

Another version of this is having the PR team report to a very junior person that isn’t in the loop on what’s really happening at your business. If we don’t have access to your business objectives and goals, we can’t craft a strategic (or successful) PR program that supports your business. When you delegate PR to someone without any internal “juice,” you set our team up for failure in the long run.

Or it can be not taking our advice. Not just once or twice, here and there, but repeatedly demonstrating that our counsel isn’t valued or in line with your internal culture or approach. If the agency and the client are on two different pages on how to engage with the media or how to handle crisis communications, the agency needs to beware. In those cases, the writing is on the wall that this isn’t a long-term match, especially if the client proposes something that would violate our ethics.

Mergers, acquisitions, new markets – these business changes often lead to an agency finding itself in a client conflict situation. These are the tough decisions that the agency has to make: which client do you keep and which do you let go? Beyond the financial implications, don’t discount other elements of the agency-client relationship (see above) or how compelling YOUR approach to that story is. All things equal on the financial side, I’d rather work with the #ballsy client that not only allows the agency to do cool stuff, but encourages us to try new things and break old rules. Be the client with whom everyone loves to work – trust me, it matters.

Financial reasons
Let’s start with scope creep or overservicing. Some clients start to expect more services (maybe they’ve added a new product line or decided to focus on another vertical market), and there isn’t corresponding budget increases to account for the additional time on those projects. It starts out as the team wanting to do right by the client and show our ability to be successful on a new front, but sometimes it spirals out of control and you can’t get the work back in line with budget. This isn’t sustainable long term and can lead to frustration and resentment all around.

Sometimes there are troubling times in the client’s kingdom and the PR or marketing team internally isn’t in the loop. And the agency’s invoices aren’t getting paid – for several months. This is a clear and straight-forward business decision. Agencies have to stop servicing clients that don’t pay. The biggest agency expense is people, and we need to make sure that clients are paying for our time.

What about you? Any other reason that you would break up with a client? Tell me your story in the comments.

Cathy Summers
Vice President


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