How (and when) to say goodbye to a client

The day you sign a client, is the day you start losing them.

- Roger Sterling, Mad Men.

In the last 27 years I’ve had some wonderful client experiences. Some have been professionally rewarding, others intellectually nourishing, and a small selection of them have even been financially beneficial.

It was only yesterday that I presented to the executive team of a large hospital I’m working with and had a couple of them moved to tears at the profound nature of what we had provided them.

And what we had provided them was simply a platform to tell their story. A simple, humble but profoundly human story.

Im proud of these moments, where I am able to influence and mould leadership and brand narrative to become a voice for good. A movement.

In the last 27 years I’ve also spanned the range of bad clients. 

The shysters who have tried to trick me; the ego-driven executives whose teams are frightened by them; the slick corporate types whose own egos drip off their shiny suits; the non-profit crying poor wanting things for free; the scrambler who is too busy to put anything in writing; the new marketing person who is out of his depth and will blame you for everything and secretly wants to work with his other agency; the startup hustler. 

I’m sure there are more personas but they’re not worth mine, or your time to list them all here. I’ve learned that I must rise above these negative types and focus on the good, healthy relationships which are much worthy of my time.

I’ve learned to become quite realistic and pragmatic about client relationships. I’ve realised that I am not going to please everyone and when things go wrong my team and I have to acknowledge our part when surveying the damage. For we get things wrong from time to time.

I’ve realised that it takes two to tango and my clients will also contribute to a positive outcomes as much as we do. 

I’ve also come to realise that we, creative people, are easy to blame and blamed we shall be when we’re dealing with immature buyers of creativity or toxic individuals.

There will come a time when all of us will be put into a position where we have to accept a client relationship is over.

How we handle these situations is critical - especially if it is us that contributed majorly to the breakdown.

Be clear from the outset.

It amazes me how many creative people go ga-ga at the mere thought of a new client relationship. The type of ga-ga reserved for new friends and boy/girl-friends. The reality is that from the outset the relationship is a commercial one. They are buying a product and you have to deliver a product. Be clear with yourself from the outset - this is a commercial relationship. Document everything and leave no room for interpretation. Your scope must be black and white - no shades of grey.

Stand your ground.

It’s so important to be clear on your values. No what they are, why you have them and wear them on your sleeve next to your heart. When these values are compromised be ready to stand your ground and be true to yourself, your own integrity and that of your team.

Don’t be a yes person.

Some clients love a shiny-shoed, slick-suit-wearing Account Manager say ‘how high’ every time they say ‘jump’. Others are happy to work in more collaborative mutually beneficial ways. One of the biggest mistake I’ve seen made, and have made myself, is to think that saying yes was always the right thing to do. That simply by saying yes, I was helping, but in fact I was letting people down. My client, my team and most importantly, myself. Don’t say yes to everything. ‘No’ is a prefect Ly respectable answer and in most cases the right thing to say.

It takes two to tango.

I’ve sat in debriefing meetings, listening to a diss appointed client tell me all the things that were wrong about the work we’ve done. I’ve listened attentively and taken notes; happy to take feedback on board and learn from the mistake I or my team have made. It’s also fair to critique and interrogate our clients work as well - the next time you’re being grilled about the terrible work you’ve done, take a deep breath and ask your client ‘how do you think you and your team have supported a positive outcome?’

Listen to the answer of this question because it will be telling.    

If it’s not in writing it didn’t happen and was never said.

Never. Ever take a verbal brief. Write it down and ask them to sign it off. I’ve made this mistake often and look back on that moment and cringe. If it’s not in writing it never happened. Write it down. All of it.

They’re just trying to cover their own arses.

At the end of the day, they’re people trying to do a good job too - as I hope you are. Don’t forget this. They’re more than likely working for ‘the man’ and they’re trying to look good and cover their own arses. 

Perspective helps.

Honesty, humility and integrity are the best policy and if you’ve made a mistake, own it.


I’d like to update this article with input from readers of the weekly journal. If you have some advice that will help the broader creative community, please drop me an email