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Know When to Walk Away, Know When to Run

A few months ago the CEO of a prospective client asked me what I look for in a client. Right there, during a new business pitch, in front of his team and mine, he wanted to know what type of client I wouldn’t work with.

A million questions ran through my mind. Why is he asking? Is he testing me? What are his motives? Is he questioning mine? Is this about ethics? Does he want to know if I would represent Anthony Weiner? Would I? What about Anthony Bourdain? Oy vey!

Soon enough I realized that his answers to my questions would not change my answer to his. It didn’t matter why he was asking. It only mattered that he was asking.

We spend a lot of time with our clients. Some days more than we do with our spouses. So why wouldn’t we be selective? It turns out that my mother’s advice to “choose your partner wisely” also applies to business.

With experience comes clarity, and with 20+ years in the business, I have developed a clear set of criteria for the clients we bring on board. Flipping that around, we also have a top-5 list of reasons not to engage with a new client. We call that the “red flag” zone. Here are Red Fan’s top five red flags:

1. Conflict of interest

Each client is exclusive in their category. I’ve always run my business this way. When we engage with a client we are betting on them and investing in them. We’re also taking their competitors off the table as potential clients. No one wants to be on the client roster wondering if they are getting second-class treatment because their agency represents others in the same vertical. We’re also committed to full disclosure, mostly because it breeds trust. Smart clients know they will get the best counsel only when they are fully transparent with us. It’s also in our contract – the truth and nothing but the truth.

2. Would not reflect well on my brand

See Anthony Weiner. Ok, seriously, there is the ick factor, right? PR firms have to manage their own reputations, always and forever, if they are going to be of any value to their clients. Enough said.

3. Won’t end with a win-win

Winning isn’t everything. What? Of course it is. Clients want to win. I want to win. If I don’t think we can achieve a win for our clients, I’m out. Victory comes in a lot of flavors, and so does failure. On the client side, you often have insufficient budget, incoherent strategy, lack of internal alignment and unreasonable expectations. On the agency side, in some cases Red Fan may not be the best fit, and we’re the first to let a client know this. Plus, we’re always happy to connect them with the right resources. For example, if a medical device manufacturer came knocking, I would refer them to an agency with better connections, and in most cases, I’d know where to send them. I do this because it’s good customer service.

4. Don’t have the capacity

This one hurts the worst. I hate turning down business when we don’t have the bandwidth to do our best work. When we’re fully booked, we’re fully booked. In these cases, we still want our potential clients to achieve a win, so we guide them through their options, which often include thinking through a project time line and getting their house in order with introductions to branding partners, website developers and other resources they will need. More often than not, they discover they have more homework to do before engaging with a PR firm. If they are buttoned up and the work is on a fast track, we will recommend other agencies that we respect. Good karma always finds its way home.

5. Profitability

We need to get something in return for our services, and in nearly all cases, that something is money. How else can we keep our go-go-glam lifestyle afloat? In all seriousness, of course it’s about a win-win, and every hour counts. We are a billable business, whether we’re drafting press releases, counseling clients, conducting a positioning audit, establishing valuable partnerships for a client or working our media contacts, every hour is a strategic investment of time. With shortcuts in PR comes pain for both the client and the agency, so we don’t take on the business if the budget isn’t there. However, as an entrepreneur, I believe that it’s generally worthwhile to sit down early with business leaders to help them identify priorities, build their trust and give them the time they need to prepare for a successful engagement.

Red Fan works with big brands, small brands and many great causes, including virtual banking and financial services innovator – Q2, the local chapter of the Susan G. Komen Foundation and Austin’s beloved Trail of Lights. For these and many more clients, we are at the table for the big discussions, protecting our clients’ reputations, coming up with stellar ideas and keeping their brand front in center. It works because our clients have impressive management teams; they are ready to invest in campaigns that map to their business goals; and of course they have realistic expectations for achieving their goals. No red flags here.

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