How to break up with your agency

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Written By Athina Antarakis

I know we live in an age where it’s considered totally fine to break up with someone via text message – or just not contact them at all, until they finally ‘get it’ – but you would hope that the end of a professional relationship would be handled a little differently.

Sadly, this is not always the case. Having swapped a few horror stories with other agency founders recently, I figured it was time to share some thoughts on etiquette, the dos and don’ts of breaking up with your agency.

  1. Think it’s best we go our separate ways

Agencies hire and fire staff on the basis of pipeline work (among other things) and if you’re a long-term client on a nice retainer spare a thought for the people who need to pay their bills and cover the mortgage – yes, they might be creative types, but they are human too.

It would help your agency enormously if you can give them a heads up that you’re thinking of moving on. The longer lead time the better – a least a couple of months, more if you can manage it. This gives them time to plan, come up with a contingency if needed, or look for other work to fill the gap.

They may have decided to put on a new staff member, or offer a casual permanent work; suddenly telling them that you don’t require their services any more, especially if there’s no apparent reason, can leave a massive hole in their cash flow and even send a small agency to the wall.

<3 Have a heart.

  1. Tell me baby, where did I go wrong?

We understand that not everything lasts forever, and you’re well within your rights to go elsewhere. You might be

  • a bit bored
  • looking for a better deal, or
  • you may genuinely feel that the relationship is just not working any more.

No problem. But it’s just good manners to sit down with the agency for a thorough debriefing session.

Tell them:

  • what went well
  • what they could have done better, and
  • ask them what you could do to improve as a client.

Everyone will learn something, and at least there’s a bit of closure.

And be completely upfront about why you’re moving on – if it’s ‘not them, it’s you’, they need to know that they’ve done everything right – conversely, if there is something that’s been bugging you, it’s better they are aware and can rectify it with future clients rather than repeating the same mistakes over and over.

  1. It must have been good, but I lost it somehow

Think about why you’re REALLY letting your agency go.

  • Do you think you can get a better price elsewhere?
  • Feel like you’re being taken for granted?
  • No longer excited by the creative solutions they’re proposing?

Maybe it’s time for an honest conversation, and a challenge to them to win you back.

Like any long-term partnership, one or both parties can begin to assume that the other will drop everything when they call or be happy with the same-old, same-old – in other words, we can get a bit complacent, and it’s easy to stop making an effort once the honeymoon period is over.

If you’re finding that your agency is a bit unresponsive, or seems to be dialling it in, call them on it. If you make it clear they could lose you as a client if they don’t pull their socks up, it should galvanise them into action.

If not, then you have grounds to look elsewhere, and they’ve had fair warning (see points 1 and 2 above). But remember, the grass is not always greener…

  1. I’m never gonna dance again the way I danced with you

Sometimes agencies get punted because their champion – you – moves from one client to another. I understand that people play favourites and that your replacement may well want to bring in their own team/mates/people they’re comfortable working with.

But it would be great if you could leave behind a memo about your existing suppliers, how to get in touch and any agreements, informal or otherwise, that might be in place.

While their day-to-day relationship may well be with you, their contract (written or verbal) is with the organisation and someone (senior) there needs to be aware of what’s been agreed.

It’s also great (if possible) to let your agency know you’re leaving well ahead of time so they can be prepared to pitch their services in to the next person.

  1. So goodbye. Please don’t cry. We both know I’m not what you need

Determined to move on? We totally get it. There are all sorts of perfectly valid reasons why it can be time to start over with a new agency. But before you do, spare a thought for the feelings – and efforts – of your existing supplier

  • Did they go above and beyond (mostly)?
  • Work on weekends to get your job over the line?
  • Take your calls and answer your emails at all hours?
  • Do extra work for nothing because ‘you’re a great client’ or give you a substantial discount for ongoing, volume work?

Let me tell you, they were under no obligation to do so – they were doing it because a) they liked working with you and b) they wanted to keep you as a client.

So, if you’re ditching them, do it in style. Make sure you say thank you – with a card, flowers, chocolates, or a nice meal – whatever you feel is appropriate for the level of effort.

  1. So since I’m not your everything (irreplaceable) how about I’ll be nothing?

It’s so easy to dish the dirt on your ex once they’re out the door – after all, with any luck you never have to see them again.

But even if you and your agency part on less-than-ideal terms, resist the urge to bag them out behind their back. It didn’t work out between you? Doesn’t mean that someone else won’t be perfectly happy in a relationship with them.

Give them a chance to prove themselves to the next client – and let them make up their own mind.

  1. I know I keep you amused but I feel I’m being used

If you’ve moved on, do it with finality, and leave your agency with their dignity intact. If you discover you’ve made a mistake and want them back, get in touch by phone (not email) and ask for a meeting.

Lay out clearly what you value about them and why you’re considering using them again. Give them an opportunity to ask questions – and the right of refusal if they don’t want to go back there.

Do not – DO NOT – send random emails asking them to quote on jobs you have no intention of awarding them, just because you need to show your manager you’ve compared three prices. That’s just cruel.