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4 signs it's time to fire your client

4 signs it's time to fire your client Drew Hubbard

I recently wrote an article called "4 broken promises agencies make to brands" in which I advised clients to be on the lookout for warning signs that their agencies might be jerking them around. The following article is written from the opposite perspective.

A contract, as we all know, is an agreement between two parties. So obviously both sides must honor their responsibilities or else the contract is kaput. Many digital agencies, especially the larger ones, chronically suffer from efficiency problems that stem from problematic clients. I can't tell you how many times I've heard the phrase, "We're doing 90 percent of our work for 10 percent of our clients" uttered in agency hallways.

4 signs it's time to fire your client

So what's an agency to do? Fire the client, of course. It sounds like a foreign idea -- telling a client that you don't want its money anymore. But from an ROI standpoint, you might find that the arithmetic doesn't add up. If you are an agency, and you have a client that isn't compensating you at a fair hourly rate, you either have to raise your price or fire the client.

Here are some warning signs that a breakup is coming. Go get your sweatpants and The Cure albums.

It's impossible to get budgets and plans approved

Here is what you are thinking: "This client is paying us thousands of dollars every month to improve its [search rankings, Facebook ads, email drip marketing campaign -- whatever]. But we can't move past the first step because the goddamn client won't return my emails or phone calls."

The automatic reaction might be to let the client continue to pay the monthly retainer until its team realizes that no progress has been made. And since you have very clear documentation that all of the delays were on the client side, your ass is covered -- right? Nope.

Guess who the client is going to be pissed off at when its digital campaign, the one that you were hired to improve, fails? Save yourself the bad word-of-mouth and fire the client. When you explain why you are terminating the agreement, you might even motivate the client to improve its own internal processes. Who knows? At a later date, the client might return to you with more work. At the worst, you've proved that your agency is honest and insists upon integrity.

They're constantly asking for free work

This one gives me heartburn. It's so simple: Clients and agencies agree to a specific amount of work to be performed at a specific rate. (By the way, if your contracts aren't specific, one of them is going to bite you in the ass eventually.) Yet clients often ask for perks above and beyond the approved scope of work.

There's nothing wrong with strong negotiation during the sales process. But once the price is set, that contract needs to remain intact for as long as possible -- for efficiency's sake. When the client needs more help or the agency needs more money, the contract is renegotiated. Simple. So when clients are constantly requesting freebies, it means that they are not respecting your agreement.

You don't want to nickel and dime your clients because that's annoying. But it's OK to remind them when certain requests are out of scope. On the other end, an extra favor here and there is just good business. The simplest solution is a quarterly review. Both sides get the chance to air some grievances, shake some hands, and request changes to the existing contract. But if you can't come to a resolution at the quarterly review meetings, it's probably breakup time -- time to bust out the Haagen Dazs.

You have to fight to get paid every month

If your client can't pay you, then it's pretty much all out the window. If the contract says "net 30," and the client doesn't pay you within 30 days, then you cease work. If the client doesn't pay immediately after that, then the contract is terminated. Again, this is pretty simple stuff. But it never seems to work out this way. I don't want to sound completely heartless. I acknowledge that there are special circumstances that can delay payments for legitimate reasons. But these special cases are pretty rare.

There are plenty of excuses for late payment. You know them; you probably used them on the gas company when you were in college. Of course, the only actual legitimate reason for nonpayment is that you didn't do the work right. And if you can't do the work right, you have bigger problems than accounting. But if your clients aren't paying for any other reason, then you probably don't want to be in business with them.

No matter what the reason, late payment or nonpayment is professionally disrespectful. This is especially true for a client that has to be (strongly) reminded to pay you every month. If the client doesn't respect what you're doing, its team will eventually find a reason to be unhappy with your work, no matter how successful you have been. Put on your "Ghost" DVD and snuggle up on the couch because it's breakup time.

They never turn around the assets you need on time

While the agency often acts as the captain of a campaign, providing strategy and leadership, the client must also play a major role. Digital assets, like photos, videos, text copy, audio, etc., are often given to the agency by the client. In fact, in most cases, the client must work closely alongside the agency to ensure that the correct voice is being used and the brand is portrayed in a way that is consistent with the overall message.

Unless your agency is being paid to do everything, which is pretty rare, then you depend on the client for something (approval of ad copy is a common one) at almost every step of the project. In other words, clients can't throw agencies into the wild and expect the campaigns of their dreams without any input on their part. Since the client is the one writing a check every month (hopefully), you would think that client-side delays wouldn't be so common.

Maybe the guy in charge of approving copy on the client side thinks the girl who writes ad copy at the agency is a jerk, so he never wants to talk to her. Or maybe the client has larger efficiency problems that simply prevent it from finishing anything on time. No matter what the reason, it's a problem that must be addressed. If not, the agency will eventually be blamed for a failed campaign, despite its best efforts to the contrary. Yep, grab a couple of bottles of red wine and put on "The Notebook." There's a breakup coming.


Clients don't often blame themselves for the failures of a campaign, even when the evidence is clear. So you have to be on the lookout for early warning signs. One of the reasons that agencies are hired in the first place is to have a fall guy to blame when something goes wrong. Most agencies know this, and they do their best to avoid being in those situations too frequently.

As the agency, it is your responsibility to see disaster coming. If you are on a path with a client that will certainly lead to the failure of your campaign, attempt to resolve the issues immediately. If they can't be resolved, abandon ship. Explain to the client why. You might find that a "fired" client is quickly replaced by another because of positive word-of-mouth.

Drew Hubbard is a social media strategist and owner of LA Foodie.

On Twitter? Follow Hubbard at @LAFoodie. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Boss dismissing out someone using a post-it" image via Shutterstock.

Drew is mainly a dad, but he's also a social media and content marketing guy. Originally from Kansas City and a graduate of The University of Missouri, Drew will gladly discuss the vast, natural beauty of the Show Me State. Drew and his wife,...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Jay Melone

2012, December 05

We just fired 30% of our clients at digitalxbridge.com. We're a young creative agency, so we were hanging onto them to get us off the ground. Turns out they were dead weight preventing us from lifting off. Aside from forming some new and amazing partnerships and launching their businesses, firing the deadbeats was the best thing we've done for ourselves, to date.

Commenter: Adam Kleinberg

2012, December 04

I've fired several clients over the years. I take my cues from David Ogilvy. I believe the quote in his book was "I've fired 10 times the number of clients that have fired our agency and every time for the same reason—degradation of employee morale. It's unacceptable in this business."

Never a pleasant point to get to, but when the writing is on the wall you gotta do what you've gotta do.

Great article, Drew.

Commenter: Nick Stamoulis

2012, December 04

I actually recently let go of a client because I finally realized that no matter what we did for his and his website/product, there was a fundamental flaw in his business model that he just wasn't willing to change. Sometimes you have clients that refuse to get out of their own way and no matter what you do you just can't help those guys.

Commenter: LLoyd Berry

2012, December 04

I actually have a few more points that I could add to this as well, but overall Drew you have nailed it. Too many times have I seen a client that expects "You” to make gold when in fact they are doing nothing to enable the success of the campaign. Yet upper management is too afraid to be stern with the powers to be of the company/brand that is paying the retainer.