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Agency Client Relationships Marketing

Katy Howell: How to lose a client in 10 days (and what to do when onboarding a new one)


By Katy Howell, chief executive

June 7, 2019 | 7 min read

It’s a win! The gin or fizz or shots all flow. Much team spirit, backslapping and celebrating is done.


How to lose a client in 10 days (NOT a romantic comedy)

Then in the cold light of day, with a hammer thumping in your head, you face reality: the work starts now.

All those promises, all that rhetoric, all those smiles and handshakes. Those chickens are coming home to roost. Winning the business isn’t even the bloody beginning of the task!

The struggle is real. So real, in fact, that sometimes it gets really screwed and you lose the client. Maybe not in 10 days, but soon. A hundred years of agency life has taught me that agencies, big and small, can fuck it up - and when you do it is worse than painful. It’s a scar that never leaves you.

The good thing about scars is that you learn from the pain.

Rewind, pause but don’t skip forward

You know how you put your best foot forward during the pitch. Well, guess what - so does the client. If you don’t onboard properly, it takes ages to discover all the bugs beneath the client carpet. Trust me there are always bugs. The brand whose ‘we have all the assets’ promise, turns to dust when you see what content they actually have. The desire to move fast, but only when the whole marketing team are back from holidays in 10 weeks.

Then there are the agency issues. The team that you promised, who are still working 24/7 on another client. The star lead account manager that decides it’s time to move on. The seniors who are distracted by the next pitch. You get the gist. The reality is that it’s a bloody big effort to get the basics in place.

Start by slowing down. Brief internally. Rejig resources and free people up to focus. The selling hasn’t stopped because you’ve won. Sell the client to your team (especially those that weren’t with you through the sale). Get everyone on board and excited. It takes planning and effort, but don't skip it.

Revisit the pitch and brief with the client, uncover the reality before sharing your reality with the brand. Agree on ways of working, from turnaround times, to contact numbers, these things all need to be set out. This is the beginning of a long beautiful relationship, so you need ground rules.

Above all, ask lots and lots of questions. On both sides. Because you’re managing expectations on both sides. Do that immersion, or kick off, or whatever you call it. Even on a small project it makes all the difference.

A meeting of minds and hearts

A solid plan of action is exactly what’s needed. Everyone’s expectations are met, timelines are set in stone and the good old deliverables are scoped within an inch of their lives.

The smarts though are in having a second plan. A secret plan. One that takes the solid plan and adds a sprinkling of glitter and a safety net. These are the elements that will wow a client as you onboard.

The small extras are what delight; a faster than expected turnaround, or a bit of extra insight, or a connection they might find useful. It has to be more than just wining and dining. You’re after the stuff that makes your client person look good to their boss person.

Don’t just plan for the fuck-ups, plan for the hiccups. Weirdly the big disasters of onboarding a big win are hardly ever the issue. They become the problem that is solved fast, as everyone, including the client, is vested in the course correction. The danger is the relentless tiny mistakes. The copy that isn’t quality checked, the poor inter-agency relations, the unanswered emails. They add up fast. They end up with that awful, “it’s just not working out” call.

It’s hard for teams on both sides of the fence to get to the nuances of what works and what doesn’t. Again, it is about asking the right questions, but above all it’s giving your team a bit of time and flex in the first few weeks to really get to know the client.

Talking of flex - this is the time to be agile. Both brand and client need to pivot quickly. Maybe there is a third real-time plan in there somewhere. Just thinking about this one makes me tremble at the uncertainty of it, but I think this is the plan you can't plan for.

Romancing the client

For years I railed against the widely publicised moaning from brands about never seeing the seniors in the pitch team again. After all, the brand didn’t pay for seniors to be part of the programme, why should they expect them to be on the account.

What a stupid way of thinking. It’s a cost per hour way of thinking – not a value-based one. It is the easiest and most rewarding way of bringing success to the programme. All that experience from the wiser heads is put into full force and sets out the rhythm of working and the direction of activity. It brings strategy and seasoned thinking to the planning.

There’s another advantage too; it’s the senior folk that can look the marketing director in the eye and say ‘no’ when activity is out of scope, doesn’t fit the goals or is just plain ridiculous. It’s also enormous fun! As a marketing oldie, I don’t run the accounts, but I do get to discover all about a client’s business. I do get to meet amazing people and I do get to be part of my team.

It is easily done, without dragging your senior peeps client side, and by budgeting on value rather than time.

Making it beyond the honeymoon

Want to keep that magnificent win? Then there is one last piece of advice. Love your new client, really love them.

Oh and congratulations on adding an amazing new client to your roster!

Katy Howell is the CEO at Immediate Future.

Agency Client Relationships Marketing

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