When Enough is Enough

A few weeks back I heard about a PR agency resigning a mid-sized account. It wasn’t big enough for trade press to pick up and report, but it had happened. Intrigued that the agency had initiated this divorce, I dug into the reasons. I was in for a very pleasant surprise.

This relationship had its usual ups-and-downs for a while; but the proverbial straw was the client’s insistence that a certain (highly skilled) piece of work be done their way. The client failed to acknowledge the expertise for which the agency had been hired in the first place. After some internal debate the agency had decided enough was enough.

Historically, agencies have resigned accounts for three reasons: (1) when the client is no longer profitable, (2) when the client no longer respects the agency or its work, and (3) when a larger or more prestigious client comes along. All very sound reasons, and invariably an agency gives its client an extra long rope before deciding to resign. And that’s in a thriving, growing business environment.

In today’s business environment agencies are even more patient with clients; preferring to compromise slightly to hold on to the business they have. For instance, they would rather assign a junior team to a less profitable client than resign the account. No one really gains.

In addition, there’s not much large account movement between agencies, unless it’s a global realignment. So the harder, more business-based reasons for resignation do not apply as strongly. We’re then left in the softer, more subjective area of professionalism.

And that brings us to this PR agency and its client. It struck me as particularly laudable that the agency decided to place a higher price on its self-respect and professional pride than on short-term profit. It would have been far more routine and tempting to carry on. Instead, the agency resigned a business when it felt its skills were not being applied, or indeed recognised.

Surely this decision would have its financial ramifications, and some belt-tightening will be needed. I’m sure the agency has thought this through, and this year’s Christmas party might not be quite so lavish. But all that is small change, compared to what the agency has gained.

It made a bold, confident statement about what it truly values: its self-respect. The agency decided to stand up for its employees and their professionalism. It refused to compromise on standards, or dilute the value it was adding to the client’s brand. This single act is a strong leadership statement and would have had a powerful motivating effect on its staff. They would all feel they were working in a place that put a premium on their skill. Furthermore, by resigning this account, the agency has sent a clear signal to the industry. Respect!

I thought about other circumstances when an agency should resign an account. Resignation is probably the best way forward when clients (a) do not know what they need, and waste agency time identifying what they don’t need instead of seeking the agency’s counsel (b) do not inspire the agency to develop and deliver path-breaking communications, preferring instead to regurgitate the past, and (c) are unwilling to take safe risks when there is a real possibility of a huge upside.

Indeed, I look forward to seeing more agencies sticking up for themselves more often and more regularly. The industry, and marketing communications as a discipline will benefit hugely; and the consumer might be treated to some refreshingly new and insightful communications.

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