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Whose ‘Stuff’ is This Anyway? Failed Relationships Can Become an Ethical Dilemma

Written by: Denise Blackburn-Gay, APR, Fellow PRSA
Ethics Officer, South Carolina PRSA

Someday, you and your client are going to part ways. Regardless of the length of your engagement, the friendship factor, or the number of awards that you garnered for your client, they are going to find a new, sexier, or cheaper agency—or so it will seem to them at the time.

The way you part ways says a lot about you and your agency, and it impacts the legacy that you leave. It may also affect future business. With the immediacy of social media and the importance of word of mouth, you can bet your sweet bippy that the client will talk about you. How they talk about you is up to you and is based largely on how you handle ‘the breakup.’

I have always likened the client/agency relationship to personal relationships. You go through the same phases: dating, marriage, the honeymoon phase, complacency and finally the split whether it’s a fling, divorce, or the finality of death. Be nice. For some clients, the split is temporary. It is merely a run with another agency who has promised them the moon but won’t be able to deliver. These clients will come running back to you.

Some clients and new agencies don’t want much outside of the logo and basic information regarding PMS colors, standard fonts, etc. I have always identified with this group. I have always wanted to be the agency that made my own mark, not the one who gave a facelift to tiring creative and copy.

Other clients, often at the urging of the new agency, will demand everything down to paper printouts of meetings, analytics and approved creative. That’s where I draw the line. The client should be keeping up with this, and the agency should make it clear from the start. Most clients are sent material for approval and reports on a periodic basis. File it. I realize, however, that it’s often easier to ask for it than retrieve it.

So how about working files, domain names, email lists, and social media passwords? A good agency knows that it can’t hold a client prisoner with these things. Clients should always own their domains and passwords. As for the working files, make this part of your work agreement or contract. Are clients paying a premium for owned creative or working on the cheap? Spell out everything to avoid misunderstandings.

Play nice but fair. For the sake of business, your current clients must take precedence. The client who is leaving needs to understand that while you will get this material together for them, it is not an overnight process. About four weeks is a realistic expectation.

Finally, I should mention the client who chooses to play dirty. This is the individual that goes around you to obtain material from printers, photographers, and even your employees for a fee. You should be glad they left—whatever the reason. Ethics is a two-way street.

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