Up in smoke, when agency/client relationships go “mad”

I’m still reeling from the past two week’s Mad Men episodes. I’ve been through enough client terminations in my 20 years of marketing communications to not have had a visceral reaction to Lee Garner, Jr. giving Roger Sterling the bad news that he was terminating the relationship. And the meeting where Don and Bert told the agency the news? I’ve been there as well. I think the show captured all the fear and gritty determination to move forward that I’ve experienced in those circumstances.

I’ve spent over 15 years in client service and spent the previous 10 on the client side. And during that time I’ve had many conversations about what causes a relationship to end.

Agency/client relationships end for many reasons that are out of the control of the agency. A new VP or CEO may bring in his or her own agency. The client may get bought by another company who has their own corporate agency. Or, as in the case of Mad Men‘s American Tobacco, there is a directive to consolidate marketing under one agency. These are the frustrating ones. You really can’t do too much about them. Occasionally you can out run the directive but more often than not it’s a “bye bye” business.

But other times the relationship ends because the agency was no longer a satisfactory partner. And many times these signs are there well before the final parting of the ways. Here are a few questions to ask yourself about whether your relationship is in better shape than that of Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce and Lucky Strike.

If you are an agency:

  • Does the client give you access to top executives? Do those executives know the work you’ve done for them?
  • Do you regularly package up results without asking? Do you actively promote your value?
  • When was the last time you proactively set up a meeting with the CEO or CMO to give them some insight about their communications program? Perhaps the results of a mini-perception analysis? Or a report on their social media using a tool like Radian6 or maybe just some feedback that the team has given you based on their work?
  • When other pieces of the client’s business are put up for review, are you asked to pitch them? Or asked what agencies you would like to work with?
  • When was the last time the client told you that they were really happy with the relationship?

And clients here are some questions to ask about your agency and whether your business may potentially be better off somewhere else:

  • Do you have a team comparable to the superstar team that was pitched? Or has your team slowly been replaced by second stringers that don’t quite have the same spark as the superstars you once had.
  • Is the agency pushing you or are you pushing them? When was the last time the agency put a new idea in front of you rather than waiting for a meeting to be called?
  • If you picked up the phone tomorrow and called the VP in charge of your business would they be able to answer key questions about your account? Or would they have to be briefed on what was going on?
  • When you see your competitor’s communication’s programs are you filled with envy or more proud of yours?

Terminations are hard on both the agency and client side. The worst scenario is when the relationship could have been saved. Perhaps Roger Sterling should have asked himself some of the questions above.

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