Not Dead Yet: How a Small Agency Survived After a Major Account Loss

By Guest 

This is a guest post by Steve Landsberg, co-founder and co-CCO of New York indie agency Grok.

I blame Michael Dell. It was all his fault that we lost one of our largest accounts, VMware.

A little background: We had won our first VMware assignment back in the summer of 2010 when Grok was just a five-person company. Over the next five years, we grew the business dramatically. We were working with five different business units and running global campaigns in six countries.  The scope of work included all things digital and traditional: long and short-form videos, banners, landing pages, outdoor, and print. VMware helped fuel Grok’s growth to a 25-person shop and helped us become one of the Inc.500 fastest growing companies in America. By December of 2015, VMware’s business accounted for almost half of our revenue.


It was all good until Mr. Multi-Billionaire Michael Dell announced his intention to acquire EMC, VMware’s parent company. VMware immediately put their advertising dollars on hold. Well, it was fun while it lasted.

Dr. Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. We grieved but we were not about to accept defeat and close the agency. We still had great clients and great people who we did not want to disappoint.

We developed a multi-pronged strategy to keep Grok going that we would put into effect the day we returned from the holiday break:  be transparent; cut payroll; over-deliver for our existing clients; increase new business efforts; and develop new skills and competencies.

The transparency really started before the holiday break.  We let our staff know what was going on in our end-of-year “kitchen meeting.”  (OK, so maybe we didn’t tell them exactly how bad it was; no need to scare the kids.)  But we still had a holiday party and gave modest bonuses to the entire staff of “Grokstars” who all worked their asses off in 2015.

The partners, Julie Bauer, Tod Seisser, and yours truly, took 25% pay cuts. Vicki Duffy, Chief Operating Officer, and Ann Figwar, Director of Human Resources, volunteered to take pay cuts too. These savings allowed us to keep the people we needed to over-deliver for existing clients and for new business efforts.  We did let the senior account director on VMware go, but gave him a few months to find a new job. And when people left on their own for other agencies, as young people often do, we didn’t replace them.

Our new business efforts included calling and emailing old contacts and agency search consultants. We sent them videos and digital newsletters that touted our expertise and results. We overhauled our company website and increased our social media presence.

We upgraded our digital and social capabilities so we could say yes when those assignments presented themselves and do them in house. We took on branding assignments, website design, coding, corporate identity, and social projects. We created corporate brand films and, for our olive oil client, shot recipe videos. All in house. We did anything and everything to bring in revenue.

Many of these small projects led to other engagements. Some of our existing accounts introduced new products and increased their spending. We won new business thanks to client referrals and to former clients who went to new companies.

By the end of 2016 we had regained much of the revenue we had lost. And going into 2017, my partners and I, along with Vicki and Ann, went back to our old pay.

Today, Grok’s revenue is spread out more evenly across multiple clients. And we provide more solutions to our existing clients (and new business prospects) with a broader range of skills and competencies.

In short, what didn’t kill us made us stronger. Thanks, Michael Dell.

[pic via]