How to get your stuff back after you fire your agency
Ian Lurie May 2 2016
Someday, you’re going to fire your digital marketing agency. We’ll get boring. You’ll find a younger, sexier marketing agency. It’s not you. It’s us.
When that happens, most agencies are pretty smart. They know a friendly exit shows integrity and builds reputation. So they provide an easy transition, delivering creative, PPC accounts and all the other goodies without any fuss.
And some agencies are dumber than rocks. I don’t know why, but they cling to your stuff like the ex who never returns your houseplants.
How do you get your stuff back? You shouldn’t have to ask.
When you switch agencies, the outgoing firm should hand over these things. If they don’t, I’m not saying you should hire a lawyer. But you definitely deserve an explanation, and they deserve a crappy review:
- Creative. If you paid them to make stuff for you, it’s yours. That means more than pictures and web pages. Photoshop files, video, audio or anything else created on your behalf is yours. If someone tries to tell you otherwise, say, “Shhhhh. Just give me the damned files.”
- Copy. See “creative,” above. Web pages are great but get the Word files, the text files and any other formats used. If the outgoing agency says “Oh, we wrote the first draft in the content management system,” suppress a shriek and know that firing them was an excellent decision.
- Domain name. Your agency should hand it over or transfer it to you with no extra charge. Think of your domain name as your house. If you hire a new contractor, the old one can’t make you move. You own your web address.
- Reports. If the old agency wrote formal reports or audits, they should provide them in digital format. If you ask for paper copies, expect to receive a bill, a call from your local environmentalists, and a complimentary membership for the Luddite Hall of Fame.
- PPC (pay-per-click, like Adwords) accounts. I already wrote about this. Some agencies will try to look you in the eye and tell you the keywords, campaigns, ads and everything else you paid them to create is still theirs. Try to control your anger, but call me if you need an alibi. PPC accounts are yours, not theirs.
- Software. If your site’s built using free software (like WordPress), you should get everything necessary to re-launch the site elsewhere. If your agency created something new, just for you, and you paid them to do it, it’s probably yours, too (see “exceptions”).
- Analytics. 99.9999% of web analytics data is stored using cloud-based systems like Google Analytics and Omniture. The data is yours, not your agency’s, and it stays with you. If you’re on a proprietary analytics system, first look in the mirror and ask “WHY GODS WHY?” and then find out how you can get an export of the data.
- The house email list. If your site collects e-mail addresses, you own them.
- Social media accounts. The barber doesn’t own your hair. Your agency doesn’t own your social media accounts. Or another strained metaphor of your choice. It’s your identity. You paid someone else to manage it. But it’s still yours.
The history-as-value clause: A lot of the work your agency does builds history, and that history is worth hard dollars. PPC account history—ad performance, click thru rates and bids—can reduce future bid costs. Social media behavior establishes your reputation. If your agency hands over a spreadsheet, you’re still required to set up new accounts. You’ve lost the history, and a lot of value. You need the actual accounts. Get all the stuff necessary to keep things running without interruption.
The cat litter clause: I just listed nine very generic categories. If your agency built something for you, created something or managed something, it’s probably yours. If they say, “Well, Ian didn’t include e-commerce in his list,” call me. I’ll cheerfully ship them four weeks of used cat litter. Give me four weeks’ warning, though. I don’t usually keep that stuff around.
Exceptions, of course
If an agency gets grabby, insisting they don’t have to hand something over, check the contract. If it’s in writing, you’re stuck. Learn and move on.
More innocent misunderstandings happen over unique work. Agencies don’t always hand over rights to unique photos or illustrations. Double-check.
You might also trade ownership for a lower cost. Maybe you decided to let your marketing agency own the custom e-commerce package they wrote so they could re-use it. That’s fine, but remember it the day you head for the door.
Otherwise: If it’s not in writing and you’ve paid your bills, get your stuff.
The basic principle
Nothing in this post is about law or contracts. I’m not a lawyer. Actually, I have a law degree, but I’ve never practiced law, and I won’t give legal advice. I got a C- in Contracts, so if I do give legal advice, you should run screaming.
Forget written rules and think about what a good business relationship looks like. The assets and history you paid your agency to create have real value. You deserve to keep that value when you switch firms. If someone tries to prevent that, maybe they’re not the right agency for you in the first place.
CEO & Founder
Ian Lurie is CEO and founder of Portent Inc. He's recorded training for Lynda.com, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Forbes.com and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, SIC and ad:Tech. Follow him on Twitter at portentint. He also just published a book about strategy for services businesses: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle. Read More