Avoiding churn and burn clients

Seems like the advertising and PR trades always carry the same names of client companies conducting agency searches. These ‘churn and burn’ clients hire and fire agencies as frequently as Major League Baseball teams do with their managers.

Propriety prevents me from naming names but, just as sure as Jenny Dervin of JetBlue has her list of ‘agencies and freelancers’ she’d like to have blacklisted from the new business process, we agency types know which client companies constitute the churn and burn bunch.

Having experienced some of these clients first-hand (and read and heard countless war stories from peers), I know that churn and burn typically results from some combination of:

– an unclear marketplace positioning (red flags should go up when a prospect answers your preliminary positioning question by saying, ‘Well, we’re hoping the new agency can tell us that.’ Wrong-o. We can create a positioning that will resonate with the media, but the client needs to know what service offering differentates their company from all others.

– high-level executives within the client organization who either don’t understand or don’t appreciate PR

– unrealistic expectations (it’s critical to align the definition of success from day one)

– a weak (or junior) client contact who will assume credit for the agency’s good work but throw it under the bus when times get tough

– a client who isolates the PR agency from other ‘marketing partners’ such as interactive shops and advertising agencies. How can we succeed if we’re not leveraging the efforts of others?

The key to avoiding churn and burn clients is due diligence in the search process. For example, a prospect recently asked about our termination clause, saying he had to be able to fire the new agency within the first 60 days if things didn’t work out. Ouch. We quickly and politely excused ourselves from that potential nightmare.

Bob Barlow, a West Coast entrepreneur and hubby of Peppercom’s demi-goddess, Ann Barlow, passed along a pearl of a line that fits perfectly in this instance: ‘You meet one a-hole in a day, it’s unfortunate. Two in a day, it’s a shame. Three in a day, you’re the a-hole.’

After a while, agencies have no one to blame but themselves if they fall prey to the churn and burn client.

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