Sink or Swim (in a pandemic): Setting boundaries for unreasonable clients, and keeping star employees

—The Sink or Swim advice column from Nancy Vonk and Janet Kestin answers real questions about leadership development. To learn more about the column, and Nancy and Janet, read the introduction here.—

Q: I’m a group creative director. Several of the clients I work with regularly ask for a turnaround that’s extremely difficult to manage. At first this felt understandable, with COVID-19 related communication needed as quickly as possible. But it’s becoming a routine. I’m afraid to draw the line when we’re losing business and can’t afford to alienate clients who could go elsewhere. Thoughts?

A: This is something we’re hearing from every corner. In these COVID times, agility is a must. Finding new ways to be efficient and innovative, under incredibly trying circumstances, is a challenge for every leader. That said, your people only have so much bandwidth, and the product they make has attached time and costs that can only be cut so far. Before the next “yes,” think of the bigger picture.

Advertising history shows that doing things faster and/or cheaper in trying times becomes a permanent expectation very quickly.

The short-term gain (coming through for clients, making them happy and grateful) invariably gives way to long-term pain: People will burn out, layoffs could still happen if it’s being done for very little profit, and if it all adds up to the quality of the work being substandard, you’ll lose the business eventually anyway. Pair that with great people going out the door, and the way forward is clear: boundaries are needed.

Before any commitment is made, the client that presented you with an urgent request should be asked for context, the objectives they have, and the budget for the project. With all this information, you may realize that they can still achieve their objectives within a realistic amount of time. You need to be sure you can do what they want for the money they have, and clarity around how much time it will take for the team to do it.

If you need more time and/or money, your best move, without exception, is to say so. Explain why it’s needed. Help them to see why the rush and not enough money would result in disappointing results. This shows thought leadership and self-respect. It’s in the absence of those two things that clients and agencies part ways.

The pattern you describe no doubt affects more than just you, and like any problem that can have a big negative impact on the whole company, all of leadership should be engaged in a strategy. Once you come to consensus on when you will and won’t “drop everything” and deliver on a dime (or for a dime), you’ll all be better prepared to make good choices. The knee-jerk “yes” is very often a bad one.

The world is changing by the day, and we don’t know what “after” is going to look like. It’s pretty safe to assume that what clients need and how agencies arrive at solutions will keep evolving. Everyone is being forced into reinvention. The silver lining: that’s not entirely a bad thing.


Q: Since WFH started, I’m more concerned about retaining my star employees than ever (four in particular, in my department of 21). After a slow week when this first started, we’ve been slammed with projects and I’m asking more of them than ever on our high-profile accounts. Hours are very long and the strain of carrying the weight is showing. If I had the budget I’d be giving them raises. I don’t. How do I avoid an exodus?

A: You can do right by the overextended stars and the rest of your staff by empowering everyone else. Now is the time to get good at delegating to those you don’t have as much confidence in. It will take pressure off the stars you’re trying to retain, and help the others to learn, grow and no doubt surprise you.

It’s common for leaders to underestimate the potential of people outside the spotlight, and that often connects to not knowing them well enough. There’s never been a better time to get a strategy for knowing their true capabilities.

Consider designing a company directory with profiles created by each employee, who can provide not only their basic information, but all their skills, interests and past roles. Invite people to include their passions, any side projects they may like to share. We bet you’ll be amazed how much ability, skill and experience is under your roof that wasn’t on your radar. This directory can become an ideal tool for determining the best casting on projects and in pitches. It may suggest new, surprising ideas you can offer clients.

See your people in 3D and take chances on them. It’s always been the right thing to do, and now it’s the only thing to do. Watch what can happen when people feel trusted and have more important projects to work on. You’ll be more likely to keep your stars, while more rise up to join their ranks.

Janet Kestin and Nancy Vonk are the co-founders of Swim, a “creative leadership lab” that supports the success of leaders at every level around the globe. They were co-chief creative officers of Ogilvy Toronto (1998-2012).

Swim is offering free small group Zoom sessions for leaders looking for ideas and support. Contact for more information.




David Brown