Bob Wootton: Harvey Nichols and MoneySupermarket are wrong to fire their agencies

The ending of two successful long-term agency relationships smacks of clients wanting to make their personal mark, with little regard for the brand value that has been built over time and could now be lost.

Advertising agency

Some arguable underlying business reasons (or at least some Olympic-quality corporate blather) will doubtless be rolled out to explain two notable recent ad agency firings.

First, we had MoneySupermarket’s dismissal of Mother. Then hot on its heels came Harvey Nichols’ firing of adam&eveDDB. I see quite a bit in common between these two apparently disparate stories.

READ MORE: MoneySuperMarket – We need our brand to be more famous than our ads

Both involve long-term relationships. MoneySupermarket was with Mother for seven years and Harvey Nicks with DDB for 17 years, spanning its merger with and remarkable resuscitation by adam&eve.

This suggests good relations and business success. (I used to work on Harvey Nichols’ account way, way back in the day when it was known for changing agencies – and executives and even owners – almost with every season, so it wasn’t always this way. Maybe its fairly long stint with Leagas Delaney helped suspend that unfortunate habit).

MoneySupermarket, meanwhile, is only 25 years old and probably not much more than 10 in the minds of most people. Much of that is down to its aggressive, high-profile, successful advertising. Feel epic? How may brands can get themselves into common parlance in two words? Enough said.

Both firings involve well-known, highly-awarded creative agencies that have won more top-drawer awards than most of their envious competitors can shake a stick at.

And a number of those awards have been won for these clients. The agencies’ reels for both companies are conspicuously excellent, celebrated, sometimes challenging. Watch them for yourself and tell me either is not seriously impressive and something we should all strive for.

I won’t dredge up the old arguments either about creative agencies’ obsession with creative awards or of the links between them and business outcomes. Suffice to say that many client requests-for-information continue to ask about awards won, and that IPA researchers Peter Field and Les Binet’s celebrated work has done much to verify such links.

So why these firings?

MoneySupermarket’s decision seems to be led by a CEO concerned by the slowing of previous years’ meteoric growth; itself not really surprising if you consider that, like many online supernovae, the brand is probably reaching peak penetration and usage. The quotes in Marketing Week’s recent interview with marketing director Darren Bentley suggest he feels some need to justify the move.

Harvey Nichols, meanwhile, has the unfortunate smack of personal whim on the part of its new group marketing and creative director Deborah Bee. (Perhaps truly creative agencies should always beware clients with their own creative directors.)

Adam&eveDDB’s sacking was reportedly conveyed to an account manager by phone, rather like dumping someone by text. Anyone with an ounce of business experience and courtesy knows that such news should be directed to the CEO.

Less than a week later, no pitch and Bee has already instated her agency from a previous role – TBWA\London. No kidding.

A new broom likes to sweep clean, and that’s never truer than for advertising.

Both decisions appear to reference customer relationship and/or experience. Whether that’s because it is a universal cause du jour or something more is not clear, though MoneySupermarket told Marketing Week it is concerned that its advertising has become more famous than its brand. Surely that’s only an issue if the branding in the advertising is weak, which it so isn’t. Many would kill just to be that famous.

A new broom likes to sweep clean, and that’s never truer than for advertising. With corporate processes remaining painfully slow and executives’ tenures short and shortening, few are prepared truly to contemplate initiating fundamental change projects whose duration will likely exceed their time in post. A shiny new logo or ad campaign, however? Piece of piss and they’re seen to be doing something high-profile.

In truth, there seems to me to be little justice, nor recognition of accrued merit, here. Just client executives apparently blissfully content to throw extraordinary babies out as they try to recast their own career bathwater. (Heaven forfend it’s just about money.)

Both agencies have responded to pretty shabby treatment with considerable dignity. They have every right to hold their heads high, even when they’ve been dealt brutal and probably unjustified blows.

The client corpus should take note as this does little for its reputation. Does it care? Does it need to? Maybe not, but it jars with the firm yet much more collaborative and conciliatory tone of major players like P&G & Unilever. My hunch is that the most sought-after agencies will now be asking some rather more searching questions of their clients and prospects.

We can only hope that, next, everyone gets what they each deserve.

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