The Best Way to Lose a Client

Success in a Business Relationship Can Sometimes Bring About Its End

By Published on .

Phil Johnson
Phil Johnson
To respect her privacy I'll call her Liz. As the director of marketing for a large technology company, she has been a client of PJA Advertising for seven years. Looking back, it's pretty much everything I could have asked for in a professional relationship, although I could not have known that at the start. We got ourselves included in a rough and tumble review that spanned three months, included last-minute meetings, and of course required multiple rounds of spec work. Liz played it very close to the vest and we never knew whether we were up or down in the process. When we got the call, it was all business: When can you start? Tough customer, I thought.

Trust and camaraderie grew at their own pace, although the 2004 Red Sox season culminating in a World Series win hastened the bonding. Along the way we experienced all the expected client issues: disagreements, ridiculous deadlines, 11th-hour changes of direction. Liz didn't always love us, and we made some missteps with account management. It was a culture of blunt honesty, so we always knew where we stood, if you know what I mean.

It was like all client relationships in a hundred ways, but here's how it was different. Liz never wavered in her commitment to the agency. We were the agency. She may have been demanding, but we never felt like we were on trial. From day one, it was all about the long term -- measured in years not months.

She actively promoted us throughout the company. She put us in front of the CEO and wasn't afraid to defend the work against challenges from above. She also created numerous opportunities for us to present to senior management and advocated that other business units work with us.

Liz exhibited a quality that I've observed with all great clients and which I value as much as good retainer. She promoted our success, not just on her account but with new clients as well. I think she always believed that our success reflected well on her and happily celebrated our victories whether they were client wins, awards, or a coveted hire.

Part of Liz's job included managing a pretty conservative culture, skeptical about the rapidly changing landscape of digital marketing and social media. Rather than be defeated by that skepticism, she pushed us to educate her and the rest of the organization. Show me interesting work. Show me case studies. Show me proof that these new innovations work. Put a presentation together for the global marketing team. It often felt glacial, but she moved the organization forward and kept us sharp.

With time, the business and the personal started to blur. Daily calls spanned discussions about new campaigns, an upcoming wedding, babies, sympathy for running injuries, and always long digressions about the Red Sox. Both agency and client teams looked for opportunities to let meetings extend to cocktails and dinner. The best I can say is that life with Liz's team just felt natural and completely integrated into the rhythms of the agency.

About six weeks ago, Liz called and scheduled some time to get together. She had made the decision to leave her job after nearly 15 years. An opportunity had come along that she wanted to pursue. Would I act as a reference?

Absolutely. I felt invested in her success. I researched the company, offered my two cents, suggested industry people for her to talk to. I doubt she needed my help, but I felt some personal pride when she got the offer.

One thought never really surfaced, but it must have crossed my mind. In the midst of all this good news we had probably lost a client. There's always the possibility that we'll work with her again, but realistically we're not quite as good a fit for her new, much smaller company. We're still well connected with her old company but there will be new leadership, and I don't spend much time worrying about the unknown. From a hard business point of view, we'll figure out a way to replace that revenue. From the personal perspective, this is a relationship that helped shape our agency, and I'll ways be grateful to Liz for that no-nonsense call when she decided to give us a shot. I couldn't have guessed that a great friendship was also in the making.

Phil Johnson is CEO of PJA Advertising & Marketing with offices in Cambridge and San Francisco. Follow Phil on Twitter: @philjohnson
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