When good clients go bad

Nothing beats the feeling of winning a new client. It might have taken months - or even years - of relationship building, pitching, proposals and to finally land it – particularly if it is a really interesting one – makes you feel amazing.

You will have done a tonne of research and due diligence on the company, where it came from, what it does, who are the investors, what’s its growth strategy, is it going to change the world?

But how much due diligence do we do on the people that work in that company and the contact that the agency will directly be reporting to?

Clients have all sorts of pressures and stresses to deal with, and it is our role as consultants to support them through difficult times and to not take an off remark or stressy response personally. But what happens if bad behaviour and disrespect become the norm? Could a toxic environment pave the way for bullying and potentially more abusive behaviour to ensue?

In the past some thought this didn’t matter; in the 80s and 90s, it was a badge of honour to have worked for a Gordon Gekko type and have lived to tell the tale. It made you a stronger consultant, thickened your skin and probably moulded you to become the same type of dictator boss. You earned your dues, doesn’t everyone need the same?

We don’t live in those times anymore (thank God) and there is a mountain of evidence proving that such behaviours are fundamentally detrimental to performance. Amongst a wealth of data is a report from the International Journal of Productivity and Performance Management demonstrating that increased stress leads to reduced productivity. When work begins to overlap with an employee’s personal life (which inevitably happens in a high stress, toxic environment) this also implies a negative effect on productivity. Reducing productivity reduces creativity and also longevity in a job. All of which are pretty central to a good communications consultant.

I have recently experienced and witnessed some incredibly unprofessional behaviour from a (thankfully now former) client who would have made Mr Gekko himself quake in his boots. I am lucky to work within an agency that genuinely values the wellbeing of its team over what was a very lucrative client, and we ended the relationship with immediate effect. But I imagine that many might not be so lucky.

Respect is a reciprocal process. You must earn the client’s respect but, in turn, they must earn yours. An agency-client relationship will be short lived if one of those sides doesn’t work. And an agency will definitely not be doing their best work for a client that is fundamentally hated because of its employees’ behaviour. Although clients do have a position of power (they are the ones paying for the service, after all) they should also have a duty of care to those agencies that support them.

Over the past few years there has been a dramatic shift in the way we all work, with a welcome focus on the importance of wellbeing within the workplace. But have all agencies caught up? Most certainly wouldn’t have taken the decision Blakeney did to value the wellbeing of its team over revenue.

But they should. We, as consultants, do not need to put up with unprofessional client behaviour, and I believe it is our duty to call it out where it still exists.

After all, there is no place in our industry for Gordon Gekko, or anyone who aspires to be like him!