On when to fire a client

On hearing that the advertising agency that he had co-founded and since left, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, had parted company with key client Burger King, Alex Bogusky posted the following on his blog …

Perhaps the most frustrating times running an agency were those when you decided not to continue to move forward with one of your clients. This can happen in several ways. Sometimes the client decides they want to look at other options but claim to be committed to the relationship. In those cases, I usually chose to split up. So it’s sort of mutual although the client, oddly enough, often gets angry. In more specific cases, a client might actually call for a full-on review. I never chose to participate in those, although many agencies do and sometimes they retain the business. This probably works best in big networks where they can redesign themselves for the new client desires. Then there is the case when you have tried everything to make the work good and the relationship work, and it just isn’t going anywhere and most importantly it is killing your people.

We had a rule that worked well: if the partners no longer wanted to work on a piece of business then we felt like we could not ask other people to work on it. When you would hit that moment, you knew you needed to resign the account. This came with a feeling of failure, but also a responsibility to protect the agency culture. We resigned several accounts over the years but none bigger than Miller Brewing. And what a shit storm that was. The client was beyond angry, ballistic, and although we sent out a release explaining our decision they decided to claim they had fired us. Whatever. People are free to say whatever they need to, to keep their board of directors happy, I suppose. But what was frustrating and somewhat telling was the fact that the advertising trade press reported it that way, even though they knew the truth because they had been made privy to the decision prior to the announcement.

My sense is that this comes from a couple of places. First, the advertising press doesn’t know shit about the advertising business in that none of them has ever been in a senior job at a decent agency. Because of this, they are sure that all billing is created equal and they are confused by the idea that it is not. Second, there is a certain self-loathing that exists in this industry that is hard to quite understand. But it prevents the agencies from actually rallying around one another in the face of the mistruths reported to capture attention. In my career, I’ve seen the advertising trade press take the same ride toward sensationalism that most of the mainstream press has taken. It’s a shame.

When you work in the industry and head up an agency, you tend to have to shut up and take it. Just release some nice quote about ‘creative differences’ and how you wish your former client all the best. Now, not so much. We fired Miller and it was a decision I’ll always be proud of for lots of reasons beyond the work. And my guess is that CPB decided it was time to part with Burger King. It might have been a mutual decision in the end but my hunch is that they had too much creative integrity to do the kind of work the new BK team was asking for. And I’m proud of them if that’s what went down.

This piece first appeared on Alex Bogusky’s Posterous blog (alexbogusky.posterous.com) on March 21. Bogusky closed this blog in May and now posts at fearlessrevolution.com

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