Savage law: Our client has fallen out of love with us

STW’s Chris Savage tackles agency dilemmas in his new weekly column for Mumbrella’s sister title Encore.

Hi Chris,

I own an agency with just over 20 staff. We’ve been with our biggest client since we started. But in the last year or so, the marketing team there has changed, including the marketing director. We’ve gone from feeling like partners to the hired help. Suddenly it seems like we can’t do anything right. Work gets rejected, invoices are queried. We regularly find ourselves getting briefs right at the last moment, not being able to do our best work, and then being hammered for it. To be frank, I don’t like the new team, and our staff don’t love working for them either. The fees are important for our cash flow, but our margins on the account are low. Now they’ve put the account out to pitch. I’m wondering whether I should just decline to participate and walk away. What do you think?

I never had a client in 30 years who genuinely saw us as a partner. I always knew if we stuffed up twice in a row, we’d be fired (maybe three times at a pinch). I stuff up in my marriage all the time. It prevails. That’s a partnership. Clients see us as suppliers – that’s my view.

Many of you will disagree. We have to become our client’s most valuable, indispensable supplier.

So first, face reality. Your client is about to fire you (or at least wants to if they can find a viable replacement). Any client behaving like this before putting its business out to pitch is looking for change. Imagine an unhappy girlfriend who says to you: “Hey, I am going to check out some new boyfriend options but you can also have a go at persuading me to stick with you, you useless jerk.” You get the picture. Madness. I never repitch in these circumstances. I go to the client and say: “We’d prefer to rebuild a great relationship that works for you and for us. If you want to do that, cancel the pitch and let’s work out how we can fall in love again. But if you don’t, fair enough. We’ll keep delivering during your pitch process and ensure a seamless handover, but we’re not repitching.”

You need courage to do this. But your staff will cheer, your shoulders will lift, your existing clients will see a renewed energy and vigour from your team, and you will replace the income faster than you think and with more profitable work.

Chris Savage is the chief operating officer of STW Group. He blogs at Wrestling Possums

Got a question for Chris? Send it to and have it answered in Encore.

This feature first appeared in the tablet edition of Encore. To download click on the links below.



  1. derrick
    4 Feb 13
    12:47 pm

  2. ha,

    awesome answer

  3. eaon
    4 Feb 13
    1:19 pm

  4. yep. good call.

  5. MR T
    4 Feb 13
    1:56 pm

  6. If only we all had the guts to say that.

  7. Ben S
    4 Feb 13
    2:08 pm

  8. Love reading what this guy writes – always solid.

  9. Lauren
    4 Feb 13
    2:24 pm

  10. *slow clap*

  11. Sally
    4 Feb 13
    2:43 pm

  12. I can’t remember how many times this happened to the agencies I worked for, over a 20 year period. We would always go through with the pitch and drop our fees in the hope to secure the business, for the same outcome – a loss straight away or one a few months later.

  13. NicolaT
    4 Feb 13
    2:51 pm

  14. If we all did this more often do you think clients would treat us any different?

  15. Miikey C
    4 Feb 13
    2:52 pm

  16. keeping clients happy is the best way to avoid pitches, keeping staff happy is the best way to keep clients happy. If the love has gone don’t waste your breath. I am amazed how much time agency folks will spend schmoozing potential new clients at pitch (also known as working for free) then taking their eye off the ball with actual paying clients. Tell ’em your not pitching and take your team out to lunch.

  17. Jake
    4 Feb 13
    4:55 pm

  18. Like BMW and McCain at Ogilvy yeah?

  19. Anne Miles
    4 Feb 13
    6:05 pm

  20. Nice column Chris and your usual commendable pragmatic approach. I suspect it is easier to say ‘no’ to a client when the business is self sufficient and you have expertise that they want. I know many agencies that are on the edge of closing and this sets fear through the account and the floor of the business – that changes the situation a little I suspect.

  21. Fabfour
    4 Feb 13
    8:03 pm

  22. yep – happened to us, and that’s exactly what we did. Morale returned and surprise, surprise, new and better business came knocking. The energy shifts when you stop servicing an ungrateful client – and that attracts more business, and more respectful business.

  23. Lee
    4 Feb 13
    9:43 pm

  24. I was in a similar situation once and had a similar choice. Watching the relationship go off the rails I decided to pull together all the work we had done for the client over the last year and honestly assess how good it was. It highlighted a number of areas where we could improve, both agency & client, and after a bit of a brainstorm I put together a presentation to take to the client. I demonstrated where I felt things were working well and why and which areas we could improve in. The client was very happy and took the suggestions on board for all the marketing projects we had booked in for that month. I can honestly say it was the best work we had done for them. The next month we were sacked!!!

  25. Gordon
    4 Feb 13
    10:50 pm

  26. I’ve seen too many agencies repitch and drop fees to retain large clients because they are too afraid of losing their biggest client. It takes an awfully large amount of courage, especially if its YOUR business (not some holding company’s), as you dont know when, where or how fast the revenue will be replaced. you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place as they say.. but if you had to choose, you should take Chris’s advice.. at least you would work on clients that love you, which in turn can only inspire you to doing better work, and getting better noticed / more work / recommendations.

  27. Lucio
    5 Feb 13
    7:57 am

  28. @ Fabfour: same thing here. Rule of thumb: never over-rely on the business from any one client. If you are, do whatever it takes to expand your client base.

  29. 30Years
    10 Feb 13
    8:46 am

  30. Every client us leaving. It is only a matter of when and how.
    Agencies dream of firing a client because you will stand tall and be applauded by your staff.
    Really? What a load of crap!
    What about the staff who get retrenched whilst you replace the revenue.
    What tosh!