Redefining relationships at a time of constant change

In an unsettled world where brands choose to work with many different agencies, it could be time to reassess the way clients and agencies pick each other, and the reasons why, says David Wethey

Normalcy. It’s an ugly American word, yet one that sums up the great account-handling tradition, practised by agencies across the globe. Agencies have a vested interest in things being normal, settled and non-confrontational. They don’t want unsettled clients. It is much easier to grow revenue and maintain margins with existing clients.

But we don’t live in a world of constant normalcy. Every day we are assailed with facts and statistics about wars, terrorism, pandemics and companies in trouble.

Little wonder then that the hitherto cosy client/agency environment is now destabilised by these frightening facts and scary statistics (I’ll call them FFs and SSs). The perceived life expectancy of a marketing director is little more than a year; that of the average agency relationship in the UK only three (despite massive investment in every pitch).

And 50% of advertising is probably still wasted. With the proliferation of specialist agencies, it seems clients now have nearly as many agencies as agencies have clients – most significant spenders are trying to manage at least ten agencies of one sort or another. Do we have to accept the FFs and SSs, and let them put us off? Or is there an antidote? I believe there is – question the ones you don’t believe, and take positive learning from those that are probably true.

There is always someone telling you that agencies spend 20% to 25% of their time pitching for business, or that more than 60% of mergers and takeovers fail. Or even that 82% of marketing plans fail to some significant degree – possibly because only 30% of marketers have the personality profile and commercial ability to make it to the top of their companies. I should know, because it is a weakness of mine to squirrel away these nuggets and then let them loose.

The ferment of an account review is probably the villain of the piece. When a big account is up for pitch, what happens – apparently – is that clients put high priority on finding the agency of their dreams, while numerous agencies stake a great deal of time and money trying to add a lustrous name to their client list. Both sides have very high expectations.

All but one of the agencies will be disappointed, and it is quite likely that the client will be disappointed too. Why? Because it has not listened to the positive story. Short-lived relationships and promiscuous agencies have not evolved by accident. The situation has arisen because many clients run pitches for the wrong reasons, and many agencies either pitch too often, or are in no position to deliver long term what they promise at the trysting stage.

Let’s start with clients. Is their problem one that a pitch can solve? Or has the problem (with the company, the brand) been defined correctly? Is a new agency (however brilliant) going to solve it? But even if the problem is correctly identified, have the right agency selection criteria been agreed? If not, none of the pitching agencies will do the trick.

And agencies? Have they asked the right questions before committing resources and money? What went wrong with the last relationship? Do they stand a serious chance of finishing ahead of agencies A,B and C? Is the brief one that the agency can honestly meet? They might be able to resolve an existing problem, but can they afford to commit time and people to solving future difficulties? The key FF is the one about clients having lots of agencies. It’s not going to change, so why does the pitching circus (built on the marriage model) proceed unchanged despite the fact that the dynamic is going to be one client, one set of problems, and several specialist agencies to deal with them? Why don’t clients handle the search process the way they do when looking for a new member of an executive team? Some criteria should relate to performance and potential, others to teamwork and co-operation.

It’s essentially the same for, say, creative agencies. From time immemorial they have juggled multiple clients, and in recent years they have become used to working alongside media, direct marketing, PR, internet agencies and many more. Why not run pitches the same way?

From both sides – clients looking to enhance a team by adding a new star, and agencies offering themselves as partners to both existing and new potential roster members – positive thinking is key. It’s preferable to wringing your hands and waiting for someone else to ring the changes.

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