How big a problem is abusive client behaviour?

—Mark Pollard wrote in a piece for Campaign that “open criticism towards agency staff is allowed to go unchecked.” Shauna Lewis asked other agency leaders for their perspective. —

By Shauna Lewis

“Power sits in the hands of those paying the checks,” Mark Pollard wrote in a recent column for Campaign UK.

The well-known author and strategist claimed that open criticism towards agency staff often went unchecked and clients frequently moved the goalposts for agencies.

It seems like the industry should have moved past this type of behaviour, with wellness policies galore and systems supposedly in place for employees to make use of when they’re made to feel uncomfortable.

It has dramatically reduced, but abusive client behaviour still seeps in. Below agency leaders share their experiences and advice on how to address it.

James Murphy: Chief executive and founder, New Commercial Arts

Bill Bernbach said “life’s too short to work with sons of bitches.” The general standard of behaviour may have improved since his day, but the principle remains true.

There are generally two points in time to make a call on abusive clients.

First, when you’re pitching. It’s a small industry, so check the client’s reputation and look at their track record. If they pitch every two years, that indicates poor relationships and best to avoid.

Remember the chemistry meeting is two-way—you’re having a good hard look at them as well. You can tell from the nature of the discussion (or absence of it) if they’re going to be constructive and positive to work with.

The second moment is later in the relationship, when the team changes at the client end or their ownership changes.

If the new guard is toxic, then the call is we need to get rid [of them], but how to do it without job losses at the agency? So, depending on the level of toxicity, you may have to curb the impulse to act immediately, secure the replacement income and then act.

Katy Wright: Chief executive, FCB Inferno

Any “abusive” client behaviour is, of course, problematic—not just for the obvious reason, but because it can take a variety of forms.

What’s essential is to ensure we create safe spaces where any bad behaviour can be called out. It’s so important. We work in a people business, that’s why we all love it so much.

And we’re all seeing how budget pressure is making teams only smaller, which itself brings challenges.

Negative, obstructive and abusive people risk both holding all of us back from doing a good job and also, worse, losing great people from our industry forever.

Katrina Bozicevich: Managing director, Manning Gottlieb OMD

Reading this article, I realize how lucky we are to work with a set of clients—individuals and organizations—that are very ambitious, sometimes chaotic, but mostly fair and always human.

I’d differentiate between systemic abuse and emotional toxicity. We’ve all seen toxic dynamics created by a lack of chemistry, mismatched ambition and resourcing pressure, but the abuse Mark describes is rare and systemic.

We have a duty of care to protect our colleagues, but client workplace behaviour policies don’t extend to interactions with us. We are contracted to supplier codes of conduct, not so the other way. In the absence of formal recourse, what we can do is set the partnership up for success.

Abusive behaviour flourishes in a permissive culture, so, instead, we enter every partnership with aligned values, clear expectations and strong feedback mechanisms.

Being crystal clear on what you will—and won’t—stand for creates a safer and more productive environment for all.

Hollie Loxley: Managing director, Havas London

Everyone who has worked in this industry for more than a few years has seen (or experienced) abusive client behaviour at some point.

While it’s not common—clients are people, and the majority of them are decent and well-meaning people and partners—it does happen, and the power dynamic means it can go unchecked.

As agencies and employers, we have an obligation to our talent to address this. We can’t control client behaviour, but we can create environments in which our people feel able to call it out, and know they’ll be supported when doing so.

At Havas London, we implemented a policy called Press Pause, (open-sourced in partnership with Creative Equals), which empowers our people to “pause” an uncomfortable or problematic encounter before a number of potential next steps are taken.

It’s simple, but effective—and the more this behaviour is called out, the less it’s likely to recur.

Andrew Stephens: Co-founder, Goodstuff

Before offering a perspective, some context.

The past three years have been exceptionally challenging in an industry that often is the first to see budgetary pressure and, despite great progress in outcome modelling, things don’t always go to plan. So the pressure on clients to deliver quickly and accurately is immense.

This is not to excuse poor behaviour, but in a people-based industry going through enormous change, it’s important to understand why some situations might occur.

However, and despite this context, I think client behaviour, in the main, has improved. Clients seem to better appreciate the importance of agency culture, how to support Goodstuffers [employees] as much as we do, and to recognize that we are all working towards the same objectives.

Any issues at Goodstuff are dealt with quickly by a senior team, including Ben Hayes and myself, and if necessary, as we have done in the past, we will resign a client if their behaviour isn’t aligned to our values.

Clients come and go but culture is non-negotiable.

(Main photo: Clockwise from top left: James Murphy, Katy Wright, Katrina Bozicevich, Hollie Loxley and Andrew Stephens.)

This article originally appeared at Campaign UK.