Giving It Away Isn't Good for the Client-Agency Relationship

Sure, They'll Tell You That Small Project Will Lead to More Business, but Will It Really?

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Jennifer Modarelli
Jennifer Modarelli
Oops, I did it again. I gave away our services to a client who "desperately" needed us to deliver things way outside of the scope of our agreement. These deliverables, I was told, would be the sure ticket to gaining awareness for the programs and ultimately securing the appropriate amount of funding and head count for the program in the next fiscal year. We were in it together, I was told, because the great work would surely lead to increased budgets for our agency in the next year. So we set forth and delivered. The projects were very cool, and the foundation was laid. And each time the call came that they really needed this one thing that they had promised their executives, I was assured that if we did do this favor for them, it would bring good things in the next year.

Fast forward to the next fiscal year, and you'll find a customer with additional head count and a much bigger budget who is giving that bigger budget to another agency. Of course there are reasons given, but none that should have overwritten the assurances we were given. What happened?

It was the classic gambit of the plum and the pumpkin. The client offers you the plum -- a small, appetizing amount of work, at a fair price -- with the promise of the big pumpkin down the road. In this case, however, they kept handing out plums -- still appetizing but now costly. In addition to the financial risks, the plum/pumpkin arrangement is often a bad basis for a client-agency relationship, because it commoditizes the relationship from the outset. The agency is being treated as a solution to a budget problem rather than as a true partner. In this case, the issues that led to our parting of the ways started in a conference room a year earlier, when relationships were new and anything was possible. It started when they offered me plums before pumpkins, and I took the bait.

I wish I could say that I learned my lesson this time. But even though I have long understood that a plum can never turn into a pumpkin, I'll still occasionally take the plum. I invest in our clients to help them grow. I do this because I believe in what we are trying to accomplish for the client. I do it because the agency loves to do great work, and sometimes budgets get in the way. I do it because I still believe that most clients will act with integrity when treated with integrity. I take risks to grow. I trust. And not all of my plums have ended up in a compost heap like this one did.

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