Good work matters, especially when an agency is making money. But when things turn sour and the bottom line at an agency is red, no one is safe because the fastest way to cut losses is to trim the staff and reducing salaries is the fastest method of doing so. In many cases, it’s the salary an individual is making, not their good or so-so work that is the determining factor about who stays and who goes.
That’s why it’s important for PR people to remember a lesson that is not taught in communications schools: More important than your good work is making your client look good. A happy client on a large account might go to bat for you with management and save your job until you have an opportunity to seek other employment. Also important, a happy client can be an important reference during job interviews. And it is not unusual for a happy client to give an account handler who is terminated project work.
Here are several ways to make the client look good:
Make the client feel important for the program’s success: This can be done by always incorporating some of their suggestions when drafting a program. Doing so doesn’t mean you have to act on them.
Never go over the client’s head: If you achieve a major hit, immediately inform your client so he or she can notify company higher-ups before they learn about it from reading the morning internal media reports.
Make yourself available to the client even after working hours and during vacation by providing emergency contact information. Provide the client with your out-of-the office email address, your mobile and home phone number.
Keep your client informed of breaking news: By reading the papers early in the morning, I saw stories regarding competitors to the brands we were working for, as well as other stories that might influence the business of companies we were representing. I immediately called and emailed details to the company contacts I was working with. Doing so provides the client with an opportunity to share the information with higher-ups, making the client look good.
Always say nice things about your client contact when presenting to the client’s higher-ups (even if you don’t mean them).
When socializing, always remember a client is a business acquaintance, not a personal friend. No matter how close a relationship you have with a client, it’s a working relationship only; act accordingly.
During my almost 25 years at Burson-Marsteller, as a senior vice president, senior counselor, and ten years at another national agency before being recruited by B-M, I was available to help troubleshoot any account that requested my help (as well as managing a few). Thus I became friendly with many clients.
One account that I frequently was asked to troubleshoot was managed by a group leader who achieved that position because of his friendship with a top B-M executive. The client always told me about the PR shortcomings of that individual but said that he would never ask for an account change because he didn’t want to hurt this “very nice person.”
“We both know of his shortcomings,” the client once told me. “But he does whatever we tell him, so no damage is done. And importantly, if I told him to jump out the window he would. He’s the most loyal account executive I’ve ever worked with and always says nice things about me during account presentations to my bosses.”
It’s also important to remember that many large entities have more than one agency. A happy client might recommend a terminated employee to another of their agencies.
The one lesson that account handlers should always remember is that while good work is important, it is secondary to good client relationships.