BL&T No. 185: Navigating Client Changes & Shuffling

Agency Leadership

This post originally appeared in my newsletter, Borrowed, Learned, & Thought. BL&T is sent weekly on Mondays. In every edition, I share lessons learned in agency leadership, life, and e-commerce. This post does not include all the details shared in the newsletter sent via email. Subscribe here.


"The future belongs to those who can turn strangers, competitors, cautious allies, and suspicious stakeholders into powerful, problem-solving, outcome-driven alliances and coalitions."

From "The Primes: How Any Group Can Solve Any Problem" by Chris McGoff [Book]


One of our long-time clients recently sold a majority stake in their business. We were excited about the new path for the brand but knew our relationship was suddenly at risk. Luckily, we were proactive about getting a call scheduled, and we met with the new VC firm last week.

Unfortunately, it was a breakup call.

The new leadership team came in with a preferred agency and wasn't open to discussing options. We'll be meeting with them soon to discuss a potential transition plan. Our engagement had become mostly ad-hoc requests, so luckily, it wasn't much of a loss, but supporting them in their next growth stage would have been a welcome journey.

This experience emphasized how important it is for us to be on top of team shuffling, a trend I've been observing lately among our clients.

Last week, a retainer client paused discussions on a new initiative as their new marketing director gets settled. Another client recently rescheduled a call about website priorities after completing their search for a new Director of E-Commerce. We'll meet with them when they start at the end of the month.

But shuffling doesn't always lead to doors closing. Sometimes, it opens new ones. I reconnected with a former client last week with whom I spoke briefly about an engagement months ago. They brought on a new e-commerce director solely focused on the website. They introduced this person over email; their eagerness to chat is oozing through the screen.

All said—change is inevitable, especially in stakeholder positions. While it’s not always within our control, getting ahead of it can make a big difference.

We’re currently knee-deep in a major project for a client that began just before our primary stakeholder joined the team. As soon as we heard they were hired, we scheduled time for a meet-and-greet. Our engagement at the time was a website audit, and we knew that meeting this person on the same call as our presentation could mean bad news. Aligning with this person upfront was invaluable and helped us build a strong partnership from the start.

Team shuffling and stakeholder changes are always red flags, signaling it’s time to spring into action. Here are some common changes I watch out for:

  1. Leadership change: New leadership can mean a new vision, priorities, and preferred vendors.
  2. Stakeholder moves on: When this happens, there's often a void. It's critical to figure out who will fill it, for how long, and what opportunities there might be to help cover the gap until someone new joins.
  3. Stakeholder fired: Such changes can be tumultuous but can also offer a chance for a fresh start. Having a relationship and direct line of communication with the key stakeholders's boss can be a lifeline when this happens.
  4. Hiring over our heads: Adding new roles to oversee our scope of work can be a catalyst for the relationship to grow and flourish, or the beginning of the end. We'll get into how to make the most of it below.
  5. Departmental shuffles: Even subtle changes can affect our collaboration. Rather than ignore these or brush them off, use them as an opportunity to dig in deeper. Maybe they don't affect the relationship on the surface but will have a downstream impact. Maybe it's a signal of business challenges or priority changes. In other cases, a department shuffle might create a need for a new workstream.
  6. Mergers and acquisitions: These can completely change the game. Much like #4, they can be an opportunity to turn a new leaf.

So, what can we do in these situations? For me, it all starts with a call.

  • Reach out early: Schedule a call with the new stakeholder as soon as possible.
  • Open dialogue: Come prepared to listen and share ideas openly.
  • Personal connection: Keep it casual in the first call. Focus on getting to know them, understanding their background, and what's exciting to them about the new role.
  • Success metrics: Unpack their vision for success and how they'll be measured in the role.
  • Share history: Update them on our past collaboration without overloading or overwhelming them.
  • Identify next steps: Align on any actions that can help them get better acquainted with the work you've been doing (e.g. website training, sharing videos of past presentations, etc).
  • Plan for transitions: If it's clear that a change is coming (new agency, in-house taking over, etc), be proactive about putting a plan forward for a smooth handover.

Navigating these changes is part of the job. While they can present challenges, they can also offer opportunities. It's not always up to us, but the least we can do is put our best foot forward.


Looking back, where did a leadership or stakeholder change lead to a positive outcome for my work or business? Negative outcome? What were the contributing factors?

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