What to Do When You Lose Your Biggest (and Only) Agency Client

Advice from a leader who survived to tell the tale

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It was my first “real” vacation since the pandemic. On the morning of day three, I got a text from the CMO of a client of mine for the past thirteen years. My only client, in fact. I managed a team of 120 people who were the brand’s digital AOR.

“Can u talk tomorrow morning?”

The call came, and it was swift. The details are unimportant, save for the fact that the brand was consolidating all its agencies under a single holding company, one to which we did not belong. Thirteen years of partnership terminated, accompanied by six months’ notice and a transition period.

I kept asking myself: How could they do this? They love us! Our work is so, so good. I’ve known some of our clients for over a decade. I’ve been to their homes, I’ve met their children. We were partners! Not the typical client/agency relationship. It was like a divorce between two people who still loved each other.

After the initial shock and denial period, I had to shift into the acceptance phase and create a plan to move forward. If you’re going through the same thing right now, I encourage you not to beat yourself up and to do the following five things.

Be as honest as possible with your team

Everyone will have tons of questions and you won’t have all the answers, and that’s ok. But the more honest you are, the more you will be trusted to do what’s right. Consider weekly status meetings with the team, as well as weekly update emails to your management and finance people. Everyone will (or they should) appreciate it.

Mourn the loss

It’s ok to cry. But consider putting some time boundaries around the pity party—it shouldn’t go on for months.

Transition with dignity

Transition in the most professional, thorough and honorable way possible. Insist that your team aggregate all necessary materials, document everything and treat everyone on the new team with respect, even if they don’t show you the same.

Have a senior-level project manager oversee the entire transition operation, as it requires more rigor than you may think. You owe all of this to your clients, your team, the work and everyone’s reputation. It won’t be fun but just do it.

Scenario plan immediately

Everything takes much longer than you think it will or should. For example, finding new jobs for team members within the agency or the broader holding company. You will end up reaching out to other team leads, discipline leads, agency directors and resource managers—which all takes time (and multiple meetings).

Also, pitching new work to staff the team against can take months, so move quickly (and get your Business Development team involved asap).

Lead by example

Some days I was better at this than others. Some days all I could do was watch pottery videos and do the massive jigsaw puzzle we had in the center of our office. But I finally realized that the team was watching me do this and that it was unprofessional and full of self pity. So, I focused on moving forward, working hard and finding new things to celebrate. Again, some days were better than others.

What was next for me? Stay and be moved to a new account? Be assigned to a bunch of business development pitches? Leave and go to another agency?

An incredible opportunity presented itself. It’s exciting, hard and terrifying all at the same time. I don’t believe in adages (turn lemons into lemonade and all that) but I can say it’s true that when one door closes, another one opens.