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Five Ways to Turn Around a Client Relationship in Distress

Here’s some advice from Leo Burnett EVPs Kara Henry and Nicolas Chidiac: Maintain a ferocious focus and genuine humility to fix your problems

It’s the rare advertising professional who hasn’t had to deal with or tried to resuscitate a distressed client relationship. Sadly, we are not among the rare ones. Here are five tips that have no basis more reliable than our own experiences turning around distressed client relationships.

Understand the true sources of problems
Ad professionals take great pride scouring categories, brands and consumers in an effort to identify problems to be solved, but we can be less scrupulous investigating the sources of our own dysfunctions. Turnaround situations, in particular, create a sense of urgency that often result in a hasty misdiagnosis. Complaints about lousy strategy, creative or account personnel rarely means your agency is stocked with a fleet of shoddy talent. It’s likely the symptom of a deeper problem, be it resources strain, process or organizational inertia. You must maintain both a ferocious focus and genuine humility to explore and diagnose the real problem in your relationship before outlining a strategy to fix it.

Ensure a shared investment in problems to be solved
It’s tempting to shut out the client and management, and shut the doors and barricade yourself in your office. You try to fix everything on your own, when in reality, a successful turnaround is a collaborative effort, with the key client and agency stakeholders sharing unequivocal clarity and aligning on what the problem is and the plan to solve it. The goal is to excite the client — and your team — about what success will look like at the end of this shared journey. And don’t think of the process as getting to the finish line where everyone breathes a we-salvaged-this-trainwreck sigh of relief; instead, like any relationship, it’s a destination defined by expectations meant to be exceeded and aspirations that truly excite.

Preserve confidence in an environment that is threatening it
Turnaround situations create insecurity. These dramas make us question ourselves, our product, our judgment and one another. Yet, confidence (not to be confused with cockiness) is one of our most crucial assets. If we don’t believe in ourselves, then we can’t believe in the work we are creating or ideas that we are selling — and that is beyond obvious to all. And if we are not coming across as believers in the work that we are creating, surely we can’t expect an already dubious partner to come running back into our wobbly arms.

Define who is in charge
High-stake distress situations create an environment for organizations to throw piles of people into a rocky ring, breeding a circle of chaos. It is crucial that a clearly defined leader or decision maker needs to be identified. This person needs to be hands on, in the trenches and not leading by committee. This individual will be responsible for managing up as well as down, and becomes the key client liaison during this period.

Keep the mood light
While blatantly obvious, and even a little cliché, this is often overlooked. The prospect of losing a business and the repercussions that might follow are serious matters. Things are crap, people are stressed, morale is low. Those things are hard to deny — but adding a dose of humor and making an effort to keep things in perspective is critical. Humor has always been a way to improve resilience in stressful environments, and that can never be a bad thing when working to restore things with the client. Equally obvious and also a little cliché: There are a plethora of team-building activities to help build morale. Pick one. It is advertising, after all, and if we aren’t laughing more than we are fretting, then we’re really in trouble.

Kara Henry and Nicolas Chidiac are executive vice presidents on the Kellogg’s account at Leo Burnett USA.