You're Fired - When Your Client Decides To Move On

Episode 48: You’re Fired! How To Respond When Your Client Wants To Move On

It is the worst thing that we have to deal with in our work. It will happen more often than you expect, or frankly deserve. It is an inevitable fact of agency life that you will be fired by your client at some point in your career. Why does it happen, and how do you handle the bitterness of rejection while learning your lessons in order to become a better strategist?

To understand why clients fire us, you have to remember why they hire us in the first place. Clients hire agencies for a variety of reasons that can be boiled down to:

  • They need to achieve objectives that they don’t feel their current partners or internal resources can help them achieve.
  • They are looking for broader ideas that they are having difficulty sourcing elsewhere.
  • They need to achieve efficiencies.
  • They need to connect and integrate efforts.
  • There is a personal relationship that inspires trust.
  • Or, they want to know that someone is concerning themselves with connecting the initiatives in a strategic way.

Put simply, clients fire us because we did not align with these objectives. The 6 most common reasons for being fired are:

  1. We are not achieving objectives. This is a fairly straightforward one; if we have set numerical objectives, which is very common in performance marketing campaigns, and aren’t achieving these objectives, we are likely to get let go. That said, there is nuance in this. For example, if our objective was to double revenue, and we came within 90% of that objective, it would be unfair to sever ties since it already represents a significant improvement. If on the other hand we had projected a modest increase in performance and are nowhere near achieving that, then it is extremely hard to argue against the inevitable.
  2. We are too slow / unresponsive or inefficient. This is particularly indefensible. Clients hire agencies to be more nimble than they are. If this is not the case, then there is a problem.
  3. We are out of ideas. As a strategist in an agency, this is one of your core responsibilities. If we are not bringing forward new ideas, even on areas that we don’t control, we are undermining one of the core points of value that we bring to the table.
  4. We don’t work strategically. Often, an agency is hired to deliver on a very specific and narrow mandate. While the client puts us in this box, it is our responsibility to continuously find ways out. The right way to do that is to constantly find ways to deliver greater efficiency or value by connecting our work with other elements not under our control. Recognize that every other agency in the mix is doing exactly this and is looking for ways to replace us.
  5. We don’t have a relationship. This happens for a couple of reasons. Either we never bothered to build a deep relationship with the client, or our sponsor on the client side has left and their replacement has their own agency partners that they are comfortable with.
  6. It’s just time for a change. Agency tenure with a given client is now in the region of between a year and 3 years. Sometimes you do everything right, but the client just needs to change for the sake of it.

In short, either you are not delivering value, the client does not recognize the value, or you are misaligned with the client, on a professional or personal basis.

Whatever the reason, when the axe drops, how do you respond?

Remember that this is not a huge industry, and that the way you respond will determine your future prospects moving forward. Do you want to burn any bridges? Do you want people to speak ill of you?

The first principle is to take the high road. Whatever the reason, act like a professional. I have been on the receiving end of very petulant behaviour from agency representatives when the business was transitioned to us, and I am always curious what they expect to achieve from this beyond feeling better about it, at least in the short term.

This is not to say that you should bend over backwards. You don’t need to volunteer efforts that are not required, or do any extra work for free. But you need to do everything you can to ensure a smooth transition, with no ill will incurred or communicated.

The second thing to do is to get an honest and unvarnished reason for the transition. This is your only chance to learn the underlying reasons why you lost the business. Pay close attention to what the client says and probe. Even if the reasons are difficult to accept and digest, make sure that you don’t gloss over this step. This is how you get better.

The third thing to do is to communicate this internally. Be sure everyone who needs to know is clear as to why the business is being lost. Draw lessons from this loss and put in plans to address the underlying issues so they don’t happen again.

In communicating this internally, remember to strike the right note. Don’t panic. Don’t over-react. Compartmentalize your response so that it doesn’t bleed over to unrelated accounts or individuals. People are looking to you as the strategist to set the tone.

Finally, learn from this experience. Internalize the reasons and apply them to everything you do. That is really the most valuable lesson you can draw from this experience. This is how you turn what is a deeply negative experience into something valuable. This is how you respond to being fired.

Next week on octopus, we will continue to explore the role of the digital strategist. Please be sure to comment below. I’d love to hear from you. Please subscribe for alerts about new episodes and content. Thank you for listening to octopus. I’m Nasser Sahlool.

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