The Secret Marketer on client/agency relationships

This week I want to talk about the roles of agencies for many client brands. What is an agency? Some would call it a centre of specialism that clients do not have themselves, while others might term it an external impetus of new thinking. Or is simply it an extra pair of hands? For many of us (on both sides of the fence), it is all of these.

I work for a brand that follows a philosophy of “family first” – we seek to hire the best people, train them well, motivate them appropriately and hence rely less on having to spend our hard-earned cash with a third party.

My brand owner peers tell me this is a growing trend, which is perhaps counter-intuitive in a recessionary climate when you would expect brands to want to keep retained headcount as flexible as possible.

This state of affairs got me musing about an article in the Daily Telegraph a few weeks ago that was debating outsourcing between the public and private sectors. It is not a term often used in marketing, but the whole client/agency debate is actually about outsourcing.

It is not a term often used in marketing, but the whole client/agency debate is actually about outsourcing

In this particular article, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond claimed that the private sector (marketing agency) “tries to provide services at a minimum cost and can sometimes fail”, whereas the public sector (brand owner) “tries to guarantee delivery regardless of the cost”.

He goes on to use the example that if the public sector (brand owner) has to guarantee one serviceable aircraft (brand) at any one time, it will actually deploy four, just to make sure that one will fly whatever happens. He concludes that he once thought that government (brand-owner) should learn from the private sector (marketing agency) but now he felt it was the other way around.

Do we believe that agencies can learn from clients? While I am sure this has been said many times in pitches, I wonder if it is what agencies really think. And what is the lesson for us all?

Hammond was arguing that there is safety in keeping your destiny in your own hands, but the reality is that it can be a very lonely place without the infusion of new ideas, without the challenge from someone with less of a vested interest in an outcome. And if it is all down to you, who do you blame when it all goes horribly wrong?

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