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The 5 Types of Marriage Breakdown (in PR)

April 9, 2013


“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”.

It’s one of the most famous opening lines of any novel, but I’m not convinced Tolstoy was right.

Anna Karenina’s marriage was a mystery to those outside it, but if we break it down to the simplest cliche, it runs something like ‘Distant older husband, wife feels unloved, hot young guy comes in and sweeps her off her feet. Turns to shit’.

Maybe all our lives are a cliche when reduced to a few sentences…

Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is that there are archetypal relationships, and these apply just as easily to client relationships as they do to marriages.

And just as not every marriage can be saved, not every client will stick around for the long haul. I’ve been in this game long enough to know that you can be the best partner in the world, and still lose a client.

But there are some warning signs, and sometimes if you spot them early enough, you can mount a campaign to hang on. Here are some of the marriage breakdowns I’ve been through, and what you can potentially do to avoid them. And if you can’t, at least you know you’re not alone!

  1. ‘It’s not you, it’s me’. This is the client who has so much shit going on internally, they can’t focus on their external positioning to give you the time of day. Usually a client in financial crisis, they either don’t have time and headspace for PR, or some bean-counter runs a big red line through the PR budget and then you’re outta there. Not much you can do to intervene here, except stay in contact and wait for things to look up. Or work on smaller, low-cost projects to keep your hand in and the relationship strong.
  2. ‘I’m trading you in for a younger model’. You’ve been on retainer with this client forever, and they get a new leader, or the board gets it in their head that suppliers need a shake-up. It will often go out to pitch, but you’re only there as window-dressing – like turning up to marriage counselling for the sake of it. In reality, they have a fresh new agency with a bagful of promises, ready to wow them with blue sky thinking. Again, there’s not a lot you can do here except hope the new lot screws it up and the client comes back (yep, it happens).
  3. ‘I want to see other people’. This is not as terminal as the situation above. They want to put the feelers out to see what else is out there, and maybe even open it up to pitch. But they aren’t really committed to going – they just want to see it there’s anything better on offer. If you can bring your A-game, come up with some genuinely new ideas, freshen up the team and bring some value-adds to the account, you could well keep it. But you know it’s going to have to be flowers and candlelight dinners all the time from now on, as the client will always have one eye on your competition.
  4. ‘I’m going to the shop for a pack of cigarettes’. You know the bloke who just ups and leaves one day, with no warning and no discussion. Yeah, that guy exists as a client. Sometimes it’s a directive from the board, sometimes it’s just an unpredictable CEO, sometimes there is no rhyme or reason you can see. You just get a call, get axed and then try to work out a termination clause. This is the shit that sends you running for the ashram, especially if you’ve been doing good work. But that’s consulting: win some, lose some.
  5. ‘You take me for granted’. Let’s admit, sometimes a client is good mate, you’ve worked with them for ages, you do pretty good work … but. You get a bit complacent, you have other, more demanding clients, you get stuck in a rut. This is the situation you have the most control over. You need to bring out some new lingerie every now and then (figuratively ok? Although literally could work in some situations). A new idea, a new campaign idea, a value-add such as training. The key is to keep it fresh and keep reinventing before they have the chance to get bored.

Ultimately, no relationship is forever – certainly not in consulting. The key is to control the things you can, and try not to take it personally when you can’t. And if all else fails, go to the pub.

photo credit: Dustin Diaz via photopin cc


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