Agency Search

The Business Case for Letting Go

All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on.” 

-Havelock Ellis, British Psychologist

People have a hard time letting go of things that were right for them in a prior time.  Sometimes the feeling is nostalgic but fleeting, like when we let go of an old but favorite T-shirt.  Sometimes the act is poignant, like when we sort family photographs or give away the wedding gown we’ve held onto for decades.

The emotional stakes increase when the act of letting go applies to people. No easy app exists for that. We feel a massive heart tug when we see our child wave goodbye from the bus or campus green, looking more grown up than we know her/him to be. We feel a knot in our stomach when we have to let go of a good person — who is a mediocre employee.


For marketers, the decision to let go of an advertising agency is one that comes with angst. It can feel like failure to not have figured how to make the agency of the past equally right for the future. Why does this ending happen? Clients will articulate unmet needs that trigger an agency review.  Companies in high growth stages seek deeper agency resources to scale operations and keep pace with demand.  Strategic sourcing personnel see it as an ordinary practice to market price agencies to determine the best value.

Sometimes clients are not direct or easy to read. They skirt the issue of letting go. Decreased fee dollars and limited access to executives send the signal that it’s the end of an era. Others are fickle. They change agencies to accelerate fresh thinking to keep their brands relevant.

Interestingly, clients wait until their colleagues are in agreement that letting go of old partners might be a necessary or even good thing. Often it’s a long time in coming.

Rarely but occasionally, brave advertising agency owners will exit a client relationship that is no longer working for them. Their own act of letting go unburdens their agency talent from a constant state of conflict or compromise. It frees up capacity for pursuit of new and better aligned opportunities.


One of the more public acts of separation happened in 2014 when independent, Chicago-based Cramer-Krasselt publicly announced that they were letting go of their client Panera Bread. This made headlines.

“… the enormous level of subjectivity that disregards proof of performance — all churn people at a rate that becomes much too much, even in this crazy business.” —Peter Krivkovich, CEO of Cramer-Krasselt


Dr. Aino Halinen, professor of marketing, studies Agency-Client Dynamics in the Advertising Sector.  She’s found that clients perceive “institutional creativity” with their long term partner, and these relationships “go stale” when agency contributions no longer appear fresh and objective. Falling victim to “too much of a good thing”, these agencies have assimilated too much to company ways of working.

The industry also suffers from the perceptual gap between the services/skills clients look for, and the ones agencies think are most valued. For example, the 2016 SoDA Report found the biggest perceptual gap in Customer-Centric Marketing. An ability highly desired by the client companies surveyed, agencies counterparts failed to appreciate its relative importance.


From a consulting perspective, clear symptoms indicate that the client-agency relationship has reached its expiration date. It’s soon to be over when these ten heavy things are going on:

  • Communication breaks down.
  • Discussions are burdened with conversation about money.
  • The amount of rework consumes budgeted billable hours and funds.
  • Personnel come and go, often.
  • No one advocates internally for the partnership.
  • Success is defined differently for each party.
  • The status quo is grounded solely in the past with little vision.
  • No feedback system exists to identify conflict and work on improvement.
  • Pain points are not attributable to external factors like the economy, or workload demands, but to the ways the parties treat and speak about each other.
  • No one is making money… or enjoying trying.

And of course, people are simply unhappy. AKA #JOYleftthebuilding #ARThassuffered #WILLisgone #SCOUTisjobhunting


Our advertising industry is characterized by shifting alliances that directly impact everybody. Letting go of non-productive client-agency relationships, while not popular or easy to do, is a dynamic part of business. There can be a silver lining. Parting ways often ends a culture of drudgery that team members experience but are not always empowered to change. Client-agency endings free people to focus less on preserving the status quo, or constant conflict resolution, and more on new, higher value work.

Good endings require letting go of other things: Feelings of anger, regret, and disappointment can fester. Leaders who model how to let go of negative feelings accelerate the acceptance of change for their organizations.  Seasoned pros can demonstrate how to maintain strong personal relationships with people they have met, while still letting go of organizational or company ties.  The fine art of letting go gives permission to others within the organization to do the same.

While sometimes uncomfortable, often inevitable, change means new things can begin.  And #Joycanreturn