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The Wrong Kind of New Client?

DILEMMA

I am a senior partner in a Chicago-area boutique advertising firm. Early in our existence, we had a strong founder/leader and we were a small company. Culture seemed to happen by our leader’s presence every day, his hiring practices, and his general philosophy, which came out clearly in his regular communications. We attracted clients who appreciated our values and the company grew significantly. Several years ago the founder stepped away from day-to-day management. In his place is an office manager and a team of senior partners who establish direction for the firm.

Recently, one of the younger partners wanted to bring in a client who was just not the kind of customer some of us were comfortable having in our portfolio. Some of us felt this would damage our image, making us more like any other firm. We believe some of our clients pay a bit more for our services because they believe in our values, but such a client would tell our other customers that we are not distinct. This has become a deeply contentious issue among the partners, and threatens to tear the partnership apart.

What would you recommend that we do?

A Frustrated Senior Partner

RESPONSE

Thanks for writing. Maintaining a strong place for values within an organization’s culture is very important for the sake of integrity. And, as you state, clients (and I suspect likely, employees) have been attracted to your firm on account of these values, providing a form of competitive advantage. In the end, this is about values, as in what really matters to the partners in the firm. Is it growth (or survival) at all costs? Or, could a smaller operation that stays true to the founding vision and values be acceptable?

I understand the nature of the advertising business to be highly competitive. Are the founding values now detrimental to growing (or maintaining) the firm? If so, this issue (and the jobs that go along with it) will continue to be a source of contentious disagreement among the partnership. If it can’t be resolved, then going separate ways may actually be desirable in the long term. Employees who were attracted to the firm’s original values may not be motivated to do their best for clients they don’t like or support. Or, is this just a case of a younger partner feeling the pressure to bring in clients and going about it the wrong way? If this is the situation, then the compensation system needs to be re-thought or firm’s values may need to be re-emphasized.

Kenman Wong
Professor of Ethics, School of Business and Economics
Seattle Pacific University

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