When to Walk Away From an 'Energy Sucking' Client

India Media Agency Head Les Margulis Sends Message to Unilever and Marketers Looking for Free Work

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Les Margulis
Les Margulis
The crème de la crème of India's advertising world was either in attendance or on the podium at last month's Exchange4Media Conclave in Mumbai last month.

One of the principal speakers was Rahul Welde, VP of media at Unilever for Asia, Africa, Middle East and Turkey. He focused his remarks on three key issues: 1. The necessity of having procurement running the business, as media is a commodity and there is no difference in the value or quality of GRPs; 2. The advantages of the disengagement of the agency (both media and creative) from the brand process and the future of essentially free servicing by posting all briefs on the internet (which is now called "crowd sourcing"; and 3. The virtues of screwing all costs down to zero, so if a supplier does not want to work for zero, he will find someone else who will.

I wish to address my comments to Mr. Welde. I confess that, as a foreigner in a strange land, his remarks were so alien to what I was taught in business school -- that is, that all suppliers (or "business partners" as they are called on the Hindustan Lever website) are entitled to make a reasonable profit. I daresay that Rahul or his managers would never dream of handing out free samples of their products 365 days of the year, so therefore why should I or the 100-plus people in my company work for nothing?

Perhaps one reason for your position is that you do not understand the agency business. According to your public resume, you apparently have spent your entire career at Unilever and have never worked for either a full-service or a media agency.

I assume also that you take pride in being "a difficult client." But from my point of view, it is important to know the value of any client in terms of dollars and cents and in terms of the servicing cost, which is something entirely different. And from my point of view, it may not be worth the revenue to service a difficult account.

So we have a decision: either we walk away or we "manage" them.

But as I see it, the problem with these "difficult" clients is that they will become agency "energy suckers." These are the types that will also usually give you a less than adequate brief. In the not too distant past. a local client threw one of his products on the conference table and said, "I want to sell more of this. How do I do that?" And that was the brief.

So in a similar fashion, the major fast moving consumer goods manufacturer with whom you are dying to work may end up as a burden that will suck you dry and affect your capacity to serve your other clients. Therefore, sometimes it just may be wise for the overall good of your agency to tell them to go elsewhere.

I must be naïve, but I don't believe professionals on the client side want to behave in that manner. If only clients knew that this bad behavior hurts more than helps their cause.

Agencies that are treated with respect give more than they take. Agencies that enjoy open, honest lines of communication and professional partnerships with their clients produce better work. Deep down, I believe most clients understand that.

Make no mistake: I believe that every agency has to go above and beyond for their clients in both good times and especially bad times. It's not only the smart thing to do; it's the right thing. But clients also need to understand the care and feeding of an agency.

In India, a major client, Reckitt Benckiser, has begun to charge agencies almost $10,000 for the right to pitch an account. How much times have changed! In the good old days, clients would pay agencies because pitches cost both money and time. Now, other multinationals such as Lever in India have begun to review a similar proposition. I say let's nip this in the bud pronto.

So Rahul, please be advised that I don't fawn to "difficult" clients. I work as a partner. I expect to be paid for my labor. If those points do not fit into your playbook, then I don't want you as a client. And for sure I would not pay five lakhs (about $10,700) as a submission fee, as you had suggested, for the privilege of working my team to the bone for two weeks for a Lever pitch.

No, thank you, sir. You are definitely a pass.

Les Margulis is president of Media Direction India in Mumbai. An American, he is a former U.S. and international media director.
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