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When clients want to poach agency employees

From time to time a client falls in love with an agency employee so much that they want to hire them directly. The immediate reaction of many agency managers is to fight such a move.

Chip and Gini discuss how to handle situations like these — and why it might actually be a good thing for the agency in the end.



The following is a computer-generated transcript. Please listen to the audio to confirm accuracy.

CHIP: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m Chip Griffin.

GINI: And I’m Gini Dietrich,

CHIP: and today we’re going to talk about losing your employees to your clients. Yes, it’s painful to think about. But we’ve we’ve all seen it happen from time to time where a client just falls in love with one of the agency employees and wants to snag them away. And this is yet another topic that has come out of Jenny’s favorite website Reddit.

GINI: I love Reddit.

CHIP: Reddit is great. At well, greatest strong, but there is some useful stuff in Reddit. But in any case, we we bashed Reddit enough last week, so we will focus on the substance here, which is a post that was on Reddit not too long ago. We’re an agency employee said basically, you know, my my agency’s client has approached me about hiring me, what should I do? And obviously we can look at this from the employee. standpoint, but since we have the agency leadership podcast, we’re going to look at it from management standpoint as well, and how you should handle situations like that where a client wants to poach someone from your business.

GINI: Let me ask you this. Are you opposed to that?

CHIP: So, generally speaking, No, I’m not. I, I am of the mindset that well, first of all, I’ve got a couple of points of view on this. But the first is that I think, in general, standing in the way of what an employee wants, is a foolish idea because all it does is breed resentment. So, you know, if I’ve got an employee that comes to me and says, you know, the, the client wants to hire me, I’m interested in going, you know, I’ve probably got some kind of protection in my contract with the the client that prevents that. But, you know, frankly, I’m not going to fight it. I may, I may try to find a way to transition it. But ultimately, it can be beneficial to the agency, I think because you’ve then got someone embedded with him. A client, who if you’ve got a good relationship with them can strengthen that relationship. Now, on the flip side, if your relationship with that employee has been Rocky, they’re also going to know all the dirty little secrets of your business. So, but in general, no, I’m not opposed to that. I mean, what? How do you feel about it?

GINI: Yeah, I agree with you. And I think that the other advantage to having a former employee working inside the client is they know your process, they know how things are done, they do things the way you think they should be done. And so it makes I think it makes for a seamless transition, and it helps strengthen the relationship with the client.

CHIP: Absolutely. And, you know, I think that you generally want to make your your employees and your clients happy. And so if what they’ve done is come to you and said, you know, we want to be together, facilitate, figure out how to do it in a way that makes sense. So, you know, in a situation like that, you know, it’s perfectly reasonable to go to the client and say, Look, you know, instead of the order Work with the employee, the dynamics will be different depending on the individual relationships. But, you know, instead of the standard two weeks, maybe we can do this as a as a four week transition or something. Yeah, something where you make sure to adjust it so that it is beneficial to everybody as possible. At frankly, I’ve seen cases where the the notice time has been shortened. But you’ve still allowed the person to perhaps help the agency out on some other projects on the side for a period of time. There’s a lot of different ways that you can resolve these issues. But I think that ultimately, the, the approach should be to find a solution to it and not to stand in the way of it because standing in the way, but I don’t think really accomplishes very much.

GINI: No, I agree and I think all you do is breed resentment on both sides. I mean, the client will be upset, the employee will be upset. I will tell you that I had this happen to me and we actually worked out a deal. I almost hate to say the seller, or the client ended up paying us a higher retainer to have Access, like more access to our employee, and she began to lead that account and has grown the account. And it’s actually, I mean, it sort of, certainly it’s helped the client, but it’s helped us to because it’s gotten us a bigger retainer. It’s gotten us a longer standing relationship and all those things. So, right, there’s that that option to me. Oh,

CHIP: absolutely. And that goes to figuring out what the employee wants, right? So that the client may want them full time, but maybe the employee is happy to have their focal point be that client, but maybe they don’t want to move over. And so potentially, you view this as an opportunity as you did to, to generate some new business out of it. And Yep, so I’ve been involved in situations with, you know, fairly similar to that before where a client has wanted to hire an employee. You know, the employee didn’t necessarily want to go over to that client full time, but they became effectively a not quite an employee because you know, legal requirements, all that kind of stuff, but to the point where I I’ve been in situations where the agency employee had an office at the client. Yeah. And other employees of the client thought that that person was an employee, because they were so involved and so engaged. And and so there’s, there are a whole bunch of different ways if you think creatively about how to take advantage of this. And so you know, your first, really, it all starts with figuring out what the employee wants, figure out what the client wants, and then figuring out, you know, what is the solution that’s in everybody’s best interest. And if you if you remain open to the idea, then, you know, some good can probably come of it.

GINI: Well, and really, that something, what you describe is what I would call a traditional consulting model, right? Like you, you hire an Accenture to come to work with you on something and they put people in your office full time. They’re Accenture employees, but they, they they’re in your office, you know, 24, seven for months, years, you know, whatever happens to be and everybody’s happy. So that’s a Really great way of looking at it.

CHIP: Yeah. And that is something that’s that’s much more common on the ad agency side of agency world. You know, you have those kinds of relationships, but there’s no reason on the, you know, the PR and marketing side, why you can’t have those types of rights.

Yeah, well, and so, you know, if you anytime that, if you think about it this way, as a business owner, your job really is to figure out in all cases, whether it’s from a hiring standpoint, or a business development standpoint, it’s trying to figure out what’s in everybody’s interest and coming up with deals that work for everyone. And if you approach challenges like this in that way, you’re more likely to have a better outcome as opposed to you know, what I think is the the knee jerk reaction that that a lot of agency owners have in these situations, which is, Hell, no, they’re not taking.

GINI: I mean, that would be my first reaction as well, but then I would calm down, right?

CHIP: And that’s just I mean, that’s just frankly good advice for managers. Anyway, anytime they get bad News, it’s best to just sort of digest it and think about it and not react immediately in a moment. Right? And and, and that’s reacting good or bad, because you know, you may want to think about it. And, you know, maybe your initial reaction was, Oh, this is great news. And then you think about it. Wow. Okay, maybe it’s not, maybe I need to figure out a different approach. So, you know, anytime you get that kind of shocking news in some fashion or other pausing and thinking about it, absolutely. Makes sense.

GINI: Yeah. I mean, like anything else, right, right. You have to read, you have to write a nasty email, write it, and then leave it for a day and then come back, right? Same thing,

GINI: not usually, usually you’ve calmed yourself down enough.

CHIP: But it’s a whole lot more fun to send it that the aftermath may not be quite as much fun, but that that send button Yeah, there’s a certain thrill to that but you know, but the the other thing that just points out is is it is important for your contracts with clients to prohibit the sort of behavior. So you have a you have leverage in the conversation at some point if they decide to do it so that you can try to work out a deal that works for everybody. But the The second reason is because it sends the signal to them that this is not, you’re not hiring us just to sort of try out some recruiting and then and then poach employees, it’s, you know, right. So it is important to have those kinds of provisions under contract. So I’m, I’m in no way suggesting that you should remove them from your document. Because it is a valuable tool to you

GINI: know, I would definitely keep it in there. Yeah, for sure. Yeah. And in the employee contract as well. You have their non competes and all that too, which includes going to work for clients. So it protects yourself on both sides. And then you’re right, it gives you some leverage.

CHIP: Yeah. And then on another show, when we talk about employee contracts and all that kind of sucks, I actually I don’t like employee contracts and I’m not a believer in non competes for some of the reasons that

GINI: Well, you can’t prevent it, but it try. It keeps people on most people honest,

CHIP: it does. I mean, again, a lot of a lot of legal provisions, even if you never enforce them, they’re there to send a message. And to give you that leverage in a conversation later on. That said, I, you know, and I don’t want to veer too far down, but the legal language bit because that’s not the topic of today’s show. But I’m not a believer in putting a lot of language in your agreements that you don’t intend to enforce. Because that just it muddies them up. But if you if you there’s a value in having it in there, and you can foresee how you would use it, that’s fine, but just you know, be careful not to load up your documents with all sorts of provisions just because oh, well, I can put this in there. But are you ever gonna use it? No. So instead, you know, it’s a lot of trial because someone’s gonna object to it. But it certainly can be helpful in your agreement with clients to have the the anti poaching provisions that, that give you that flexibility to have a conversation when the appropriate time comes. And of course, a lot of this comes back to as an agency making sure that you’re keeping your team happy enough that they don’t want to jump to the client. And instead, they’d like a solution like the one that you referenced earlier, where they’re able to continue working for that client just in an expanded role while remaining at the agency. So, you know, there’s, there’s a lot to be said, for doing what you can to keep your talent happy while you’ve got them.

GINI: Well, and I think in this case that I’m talking about, the client approached her, and she was like, What? So she came to me immediately and we were able to have a conversation about it and say, Okay, well, what are our options here and she didn’t, she didn’t want to leave. It wasn’t something it wasn’t something that she was pursuing or anything like that. It was just a, an opportunity that was presented to her.

CHIP: Right. Well, and it’s, you know, I think it’s you need to be Indicate with your team that, you know, they need to feel comfortable coming to you with those kinds. Yeah,

GINI: absolutely. Yeah. So that

CHIP: they do that, and they don’t just kind of continue to have the conversation, you know, behind the scenes and only loop you in when it’s so far down the tracks that there’s not as much that you can do about it, because the sooner you know about this interest, the better.

GINI: Yeah. And the sooner you know about it this, the more options I think you have,

CHIP: yeah, and and candidly, I mean, a, a good client, if you will, would be someone who would come to you first before very heavily. Yeah, that’s, and so that means that, you know, you need to have open lines of communications with your clients, so that they are likely to do that. And that that increases the probability of a good outcome for everybody. Yeah. And so you know, you want to make sure that that you’re, you’re having it that way, because, again, I’ve seen that happen as well. In fact, it’s happened with me before where I got posted. It was not it was not a client relationship. Technically, it was a partner organization many years ago, but the head person at that group approached my boss and said, Hey, you know, we’d like to recruit him away. Are you okay with that? And they

GINI: were like, please take him.

CHIP: Well, you know, most people try to get rid of me.

GINI: I know. I said that. Yeah.

CHIP: Really, really good for my self esteem there. But no, I’m

GINI: good. I’m making I’m good at making fun of you even on video.

CHIP: Well, yeah. In an early in my career, right. I did have a habit of moving along very quickly, but it was always because I was being poached in some fashion side. I think that’s okay. As long as it wasn’t that I was getting fired. Right. Right. Right. Right. But the bosses didn’t seem willing to let me go. Maybe I should. Maybe I should rethink, I think but I’m, I’m sticking with, you know, they just they they regretted losing me, but they saw the greater opportunity. I’m sure that that was the case. Absolutely. Absolutely. So, you know, if you if you’re if you’re doing what you can to communicate and you’re thinking creatively, then the outcomes of these situations will likely be better. But I think, you know, for me that the core message is, you know, be open to the conversations that come up and don’t have those knee jerk reactions that we’re all tempted to have when we get this kind of news.

GINI: Yeah, I totally agree. And your point about taking some time, even if it’s happy or sad news to take some time and think it through and mold over, you’re going to be better off in the long run.

CHIP: Yes, indeed.

GINI: He is now pointing to me to segue to the end. And with that, another episode of the Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m Gini Dietrich.

CHIP: I’m Chip Griffin

GINI: and its depends

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The Hosts

Chip Griffin is the founder of the Small Agency Growth Alliance (SAGA) where he helps PR & marketing agency owners build the businesses that they want to own. He brings more than two decades of experience as an agency executive and entrepreneur to share the wisdom of his success and lessons of his failures. Follow him on Twitter at @ChipGriffin.


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, the lead blogger at Spin Sucks, and the host of Spin Sucks the podcast. She also is co-author of Marketing in the Round and co-host of Inside PR. Follow her on Twitter at @GiniDietrich.

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