Mark Pollard
Jul 25, 2023

Why is it so hard to speak out about abusive client behaviour?

Power sits in the hands of those paying the checks.

Why is it so hard to speak out about abusive client behaviour?

The fallout from a toxic boss can affect you for a decade. But what about the impact of an abusive client? 

Among the issues facing agency teams, from burnout to pay freezes, how clients behave goes largely undiscussed. Why is this so hard to speak up about, when it stands to significantly impact your career? 

Well, it’s cultural. Open criticism towards agency staff is allowed to go unchecked, and leadership often refuses to call out clients. Of course, everyone in the industry knows why: Power sits in the hands of those paying the checks. 

Over 80% of agency folk globally, who I surveyed amongst my 20,000-strong social media community, said a client has changed the goal posts of a project in a toxic way. The same percentage said a client has demanded the agency to hide illegitimate expenses from their company. What’s more, bad meeting etiquette and discrimination (based on race, gender and age) are cited as normal – and it’s commonplace that biases go unchallenged. 

One senior strategist told me that when she was 25 years old working in a hybrid strategy/account management role, “A client once made me take him to a brothel while we were out of the country and kept telling me that his happiness controlled my paycheck.”

Another was ignored by a client completely for the first three months. Emails, texts, questions and greetings all went ignored. When eventually work was submitted, they were met with feedback like, "this looks like it's written by a toddler."

Many more horror stories were shared with me. In the 20 years I spent in senior agency roles, I came up against some pretty edgy behavior too. But when I was newish to the industry, I just wasn’t sure what was normal. And that’s part of the problem.

Reasons abusive client behavior goes unchecked:

1. Abuse is accepted as a feature of the client-agency dynamic, not a flaw.

Plenty of old school industry people have seen abusive behavior for years, and might have been party to it. So, for many, it’s just normal. As agency bosses battle to keep clients happy as budgets retract, middle managers are often left to deal with client conduct day-to-day, without processes in place to challenge it. 

2. Being the passive bystander 

You know you have been here before. In difficult situations, the majority of people think, “I’ll just wait things out and hopefully not need to do anything about it, and maybe I’ll benefit from less competition when a colleague is hit with the brunt of client toxicity.” Psychologists say that it isn’t what happens to you, but what you think about what happens to you that matters – so you might deal with a traumatic situation and be fine, while someone else is devastated. 

3. Traits of those in power

Yes, it’s a truism, but research shows that those with psychopathic tendencies are over-represented in leadership roles. These people are selected for their traits of knowing what they want, how to get it and then going after it. On the whole they’re charismatic, and will do what others won’t. That’s not to say the majority of powerful clients are this way. It’s just spotlighting the traits that accompany many people in positions of power.

4. The vendor mentality

Have you ever signed into a client’s office and had a badge printed out with your name and the word “vendor” on it? Yuck. But it makes you realise that you’re just one more transaction in someone’s day and this means you can’t always expect much decorum or empathy. Perhaps the term “vendor” needs redefining from service provider to partner to emphasize the partnership dynamic.

Steps agencies can take to end client abuse:

1. Educate clients

A lot of contracts will tell agencies not to bribe clients (I mean, give clients gifts) but, why not invest an hour in a “How to get the most out of your new agency” session, and build collaboration and ways of working into client contracts.  

2. Establish and publish guidelines

When people join an agency, help them understand what’s acceptable behavior and what isn’t by sharing a published set of guidelines and norms. If they do have a client issue, ensure they know the escalation process, so their safety always comes first. 

3. Ensure escalation leads to outcome 

Team members will fear reprisal or being sidelined if they escalate issues, especially women, and especially pregnant women or those with young families. So ensure that escalation won’t face reprisal or get lost in bureaucracy, and that every concern is responded to.

4. Establish a clear complaints process

We know agencies are being squeezed, and when a client or two starts to take advantage, and all leadership is thinking about is making sure people get paid, dealing with a complaint when it arrives isn’t easy work. But, agencies must be upfront about the complaints process (possibly by taking legal counsel) so people feel there is trust. Or let's face it, they will leave. 

Research on the decade-long fallout from a bad boss is backed up by new research in the Leadership Quarterly. But there’s little data out there tracking the impact of toxic clients. Isn’t it time there was? 

As an industry, we can do better, and we can start by speaking out. 

Mark Pollard is founder and CEO of global training company Sweathead

Campaign US

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