Mike Santoro

You’re Fired! How an Agency Survives a New CMO

By: Mike Santoro | April 15, 2013 | 

You're Fired! How an Agency Survives a New CMO

It’s every agency’s worst nightmare.

You and your team are cranking along delivering solid results for a client when you hear rumors the CMO is about to step down.

A few months later, someone new is in charge and you find yourself in the midst of an agency review.

It’s a situation that rarely works well for the incumbent agency.

And with the average CMO tenure at only 18 months, it’s a situation agencies face often.

When I attended the 2013 Agency Growth Accelerator Summit earlier this year, a panel of CMOs and brand managers discussed how they select a new public relations or advertising agency.

Barbara Van Someren, CMO of Beltone, said she prefers to work with people she already knows and trusts.

It makes sense. CMOs have been brought in to accomplish something, and they need to do it fast. Someone on the client side remarked, “We can’t afford the standard warm-up period that comes with getting to know a new agency.”

How an Agency Survives a New CMO

It can be frustrating to lose hard-won business simply because a new person is in charge. We’ve been lucky to survive a high percentage of the transitions when a new marketing person enters the picture, but we’ve learned some difficult lessons from those experiences when we haven’t.

Do Great Work. You may have a great relationship with the client, but are you really delivering great work? Measurement in PR is difficult, but there are few times when it’s more important. And I’m not talking about coverage reports; you need to show how your PR efforts are affecting the company’s bottom line.

You should specifically have charts and graphs to show how your work has significantly increased web traffic, increased revenue by converting leads. You represent a risk to the new CMO. Show it’s riskier to get rid of you than it is to keep you on board.

Prepare for the Transition. The biggest mistake you can make is waiting for the new CMO to arrive to kick it into gear. By then, your fate is sealed. Are you confident in the results you are going to present? Then stay the course and be prepared to explain your strategy. Or were you retained more for a good relationship fit than for solid business results?

If it’s the latter, as soon as you hear rumors the current CMO is stepping down, you need to act fast to generate measureable results. Before you do that, you need to decide how badly you want to keep this client. Is it worth going over budget for a few months to prove your value? If it is, focus on being proactive, rather than reactive, in preparation for the new CMO’s arrival.

Be the Best Resource for the New Person. In today’s economy, most marketing departments are stretched thin, so the new person is looking for the best source of information. If that’s your team, then you might be lucky enough to retain your client. As the current PR agency, you have the advantage of understanding the brand, and having the history of current and past campaigns.

Translate those learnings quickly to the new chief marketing officer, so they can make decisions based on your expertise. If you’re only providing information that the client already has internally, then you’re easily replaceable. Deliver something different and indispensable.

Know When to Give Up. Most agency leaders (myself included) hate losing, so we pour resources into a client even when we know they are halfway out the door. If you know you’ve been doing great work and have measured it well, be cautious if the new CMO isn’t impressed. Some warning signs: You don’t have good access to the new person, or you hear little about future plans.

Another red flag is if he or she tells you they want to solicit new ideas from a few other agencies, but you have the advantage as the incumbent agency. Based on my experience, I recommend you politely decline. Your team’s time is too valuable to waste on a losing battle, and if your results haven’t sold them already, the CMO is probably going in a different direction.

Keep in Touch. When you do good work, I try to look at the loss of a client as the creation of two new leads. If the average CMO tenure is only 18 months, your client is going to be in the same process soon enough. I had a new CMO of an old client recently call to say, “My team and CEO say you did good work for us a few years back.”

We worked with one CMO, were fired by another, and then were rehired by the next one. It’s worth staying in touch. And that original CMO who left—we stayed in touch with him too, and worked with him at two of the three companies he’s worked for during the last six years. It doesn’t happen in every situation, but in a fast-moving world, keeping those old connections alive is valuable.

The new CMO challenge is one of the most grueling and nerve-wracking situations an agency faces. But if you put in the effort, deliver measurable results and become the best resource, you can overcome it.

What do you think? Is the new CMO debacle a losing battle for incumbent agencies?

About Mike Santoro

Mike is president of Walker Sands Communications, a public relations and marketing agency specializing in enterprise technology and startup clients. He applies his expertise to support a wide variety of Chicago-area, national and international companies. Mike is well known as an integrated marketing and media communications specialist and respected member of the American Marketing Association (AMA) and the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). You can follow Mike on Twitter @michaelsantoro.

  • Really appreciated this post, Mike. Your tips to “survive the new CMO challenge” are excellent and really could be used across the board as guidelines for other agency/client relationships. Glad to have read this!

    • michaelsantoro

      allenmireles Thanks so much. It’s not foolproof for every situation, but it’s helped us survive quite a few transitions.

  • michaelsantoro

    ajlucio5 Glad you liked it! I’m interested to hear your thoughts from a CMO perspective. Would these tips make you want to keep an agency?

    • ajlucio5

      michaelsantoro when I joined Visa, I had an agency review BUT of incumbents only and chose one of the four we had in roster. Great call !!

      • michaelsantoro

        ajlucio5 Smart decision. I think new CMOs underestimate the advantage of having an agency that already understands the business.

  • belllindsay

    I thought this post was really smart. I especially liked the point – know when to give up! Politely declining or making a gracious exit if you feel that’s your only recourse is a classy move, and leads directly into your last point @michaelsantoro – keeping in touch. There’s always a chance the new people won’t work out. Bowing out yet staying classy keeps that door open for future work, or referrals.

    • michaelsantoro

      belllindsay It’s one of the hardest decisions to make, but your team’s resources are better spent working on clients who want to retain you. I can’t say that I’ve done this as much as I wish I would have.

  • StuntandGimmick

    belllindsay Yeah, & it’s def a frustrating spot to be in. But for most agencies (especially smaller to mid-sized), turnover is pretty high.

  • SpinSucks

    colleenrkennedy Thanks for sharing Colleen!!

  • LindsTR

    ginidietrich might want to check automated tweets. 🙁

    • ginidietrich

      LindsTR I think it was the tweets from Triberr. I’m on vacation so have no automated tweets going out.

      • LindsTR

        ginidietrich no worries, just wanted to make sure you knew!

        • ginidietrich

          LindsTR I appreciate it!

  • Things I had to learn in order to digest this post: what a CMO is. (But some of the points about change are definitely universal – thanks).  #newbie

  • Don’t drown me in charts and graphs – I want to see boots on the ground! Take me out on the field and show me!

    • michaelsantoro

      jdrobertson If the agency is just showing a bunch of charts that confuse the client, that’s a very bad thing. But you need to be able to tell that new CMO how you are making them more money and be able to back it up somehow. Simply saying “trust me” and smiling isn’t going to cut it.

      • michaelsantoro jdrobertson Believe it or not I use to teach a class on ” How to Lie With Statistics.? When I see a bunch of charts and graphs or a powerpoint machine primed and ready to go – I get very nervous. (If you are not already familiar with it – I most sincerely recommend to you the book, How to Lie with Statistics by Darrel Huff. It is a fun read along with it’s enlightening message). As for me – take me on the tour – let me speak with the principals. I hasten to add this is what I’d want – I offer no criticism of your approach.

        • michaelsantoro

          jdrobertson That’s a great class name and a great book recommendation. I’ve added it to my reading list.

  • LeoWid

    nateriggs Hi Nate, thanks so much for all the support on our blog and Twitter! hope all is well 🙂

    • nateriggs

      LeoWid Love what you guys are posting about + love using bufferapp. BIG win-win for the customer! Nice work, Leo…

  • tanmaykverma

    leaderswest ginidietrich It is imp to show loyalty ….and not keep talking about the previous CMO

    • leaderswest

      tanmaykverma The point is that CMO turnover and the short-term thinking that causes said turnover has downstream impact. ginidietrich

  • michaelsantoro

    nateriggs thanks for the share. Hope you enjoyed the article!

  • michaelsantoro

    bowden2bowden thanks for the share. I hope you found some good advice in the article.