Years ago, I landed a whale. This was a client you could casually name-drop in a conversation and put someone’s heart on pause — if you were the name-dropping kind. My team was jubilant. Music blared, pizza was ordered, and GIFs circulated. We practically made a template for the inevitable agency case study with the brand’s logo in lights. If only we had seen the neon sign saying RUN blinking above their heads. If only we had noticed the chalk outlines of the dozen or so fired agencies, discarded PowerPoint presentations, and Odyssean conference calls trailing in their wake. Or maybe I had just chosen to ignore all the warning signs that this big-name client would end up being a complete and utter nightmare.
It started with the creative director who OD’d on GaryVee motivational videos and read one too many Mashable articles. This creative director proclaimed himself a social media expert and proceeded to doubt and micromanage our every recommendation. Every minor tactic — even simple Tweets promoting their new launch — had to be backed with research and rationale on the level of a PhD dissertation. But even that paled in comparison to the review process of our work, which involved at least 26 rounds of feedback. I remember inserting a clause into the scope of work contract that stipulated we’d provide three rounds of changes, and that each subsequent round would bear an incremental charge. My boss, the agency’s CEO, deleted that clause from the contract because nothing should get in the way of revenue — not even his staff’s emotional stability. Pfft. Who cares about the dwindling sanity levels of your staff or the excessive hours burned — thus making the project unprofitable, considering the brand’s meager retainer — when you’ve got a mortgage on a West Village townhouse? #amirite?
After an abusive tirade that brought my account director to tears and drove the staff to day-drinking, I walked into our president’s office with the numbers to prove that we were pulling staff away from other clients who managed to be decent human beings (who knew?), adding that several team members had threatened to quit. By then, I learned that an agency will never fire a seemingly lucrative client unless they’re hurting the bottom line. In this case, the account being in the red and the team screaming red were sufficient grounds. Simply put, the client took more time and produced more grief than they were worth. Sometimes, the revenue and the bragging rights just aren’t enough.
For the past five years I’ve been out on my own and I can finally set standards for the clients with whom I want to work. I only work with people who consider me a partner instead of a vendor, and I pay attention to various indications during the proposal process to determine whether a client is a fit or if they’d be a PITA.
A solid client-partner relationship comes down to respect and communication. Naturally, when the going gets rough you want to do everything you can to salvage the relationship, including stepping up the communication, creating more efficient processes, and compromising: not every battle needs to turn into a war. However, certain situations necessitate firing a client — especially if the partnership continues to suffer even after you’ve made valiant efforts to save it. Granted, sometimes you have to cope with the crazies because you have bills to pay (been there, done that). But everyone has their red line, the limit for how much they’ll take. Also, remember, you’re running a business, not a nonprofit. If a client is straining and draining you, this could have an adverse effect on your other clients. Remember when I had to make the revenue/expense case? That comes into play more than ever when you’re a consultant.