Is It Ever OK for an Ad Agency to Burn Bridges?

Burn Bridges

If you burn all your bridges, you end up not going anywhere.


Over the years, we’ve read the stories in the advertising industry trade journals about bad breakups between agencies and their clients. There are fewer and fewer tales of storied, long-term agency-client relationships, and more frequent reports of accounts being up for review, often with little advance notice to the agency of record (or agencies, as is often the case today).

Some breakups are perfectly civil; the client is rethinking business objectives or needs to respond to new challenges, and feels they want a fresh point of view to reconfigure their marketing. Other breakups are ugly, even vicious. Neither the client nor the agency can be bothered to be civil. In this business, bad breakups are comparable to burning bridges. You can’t go back, at least not without a lot of rebuilding. Even then, there’s no guarantee your return will be welcomed by the client on the opposite shore.

Breaking Up Is Easy to Do…

In our emotional climate, it sometimes seems that everyone is boiling under the skin, just waiting for the correct trigger to set off a tantrum. The anger management counselors must be making a small fortune right now.

The thing is, the ad agency business is all about relationships—planting them, growing them, nurturing them. Setting them afire when things go wrong is a great way to feel exhilarated in the short-term. Just remember that everyone knows everyone else in the marketing business. You may unintentionally signal to prospects that you are volatile and explosive. After all, people work with people they like.

There are times, however, when burning a bridge with a client is a strategic decision. Make sure you think about lighting that torch carefully and coolly, and not in the heat of the moment. If necessary to gain perspective, sit with a random group of managers and employees and discuss resigning a bad client. Hearing the opinions of others will either cause you to reset your own perceptions, or recognize that the employees have your back and agree to lighting ‘er up. Even then, it’s best to sleep on it, and make a final decision in the cold light of a new day.

Stop telling me not to burn bridges. Some bridges are meant to be burnt, some roads are never meant to be traveled again.

Dr. Steve Maraboli

Good Reasons for Burning Bridges

Following are just a few reasons why you might want to get out the matches—or the flame-thrower.

Misaligned values.Some relationships are just uncomfortable from the get-go. Your brands are not attuned; you just know in your gut that choices you will have to make will not sit well with you or your agency staff. Find a way to exit as soon as reasonably possible. Listen to your gut.

No respect.You give and give and give… and they take until you are empty. They use you as their punching bag, blame you for failing to achieve the impossible, and bad-mouth you to senior client officers. Every job is rush, but they dispute the cost and complain about the work. If your work earns them credit, they never share that credit. These people are toxic. A flamethrower is probably too kind.

Principles/Integrity. They ask you to do something unethical or illegal. Or they do something that is counter to your principles or sense of right and wrong. Don’t hesitate. Resign and move on. You need to be able to hold your head up among your peers and colleagues. Your example will also point the way for the rest of the agency.

Lying/cheating/stealing.Any client that cannot be trusted on a business or personal level is one you should distance yourself from. When you light up the torch, make sure you tell them you know they lied, cheated and robbed you before you set the bridge afire. (This is one of several bridge-burners where you might discreetly let business connections know the reasons for the breakup; it’s not about being vengeful, it’s about making sure friends and colleagues don’t get shafted.)

Non-payment of invoices.This is strictly business. When clients fail to pay for projects they contracted your agency to create and execute, they don’t deserve your time and effort. Fight to be paid for whatever you can pry out of their miserly hands, and then light ‘em up. (Again, quietly make sure other agencies know why you left.)

What if you are not the agency principal?

If you are not in a position to decide to burn a client bridge, you have two options. Request a transfer to a different account, or, leave the agency’s employ. Any organization that forces an employee to work with a bad client deserves to lose good employees. Alternatively, find an ally in agency management who agrees with you and will go to bat for your position.

Ultimately, the decision to burn a bridge could be life-altering… or direction-altering for your agency. Take a hard look at your values, business plan and client list if a bridge-burning seems likely. It may be time for a broader course correction. Use insights from a negative client relationship to retune and tighten up your prospecting efforts and valued client relationships. The more you understand your own motivating factors—the things that help you get up every morning and do good work—the better you will be able to attract and keep clients who are a good fit for your agency.