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  • David Meikle

We don't need Einstein to solve Client/Agency relationship problems

Einstein once sagely noted, “We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” As obvious as that might seem it is perhaps not so obvious to the marketing and advertising worlds, which appear to continue repeating their aggressive/defensive behaviour when they both wish for different and better results – at least according to the findings I’ve seen from the IPA report “From Mad Men to Sad Men”. (Campaign 24.07.15 From Mad Men to Sad Men).

The results of this report probably come as no surprise to most, but here are some hopefully useful insights about the state of the client/agency relationship from somebody (namely me) who has spent the last few years developing a different kind of thinking:

  • Agencies, their service fees, the payments for original production are not “costs” – they represent part of the marketing investment from which clients expect a return. If clients invest less, then (unless they have increased their risk strategy) they should not expect anything but a reduced return on their existing spend. (Incidentally – the increasing use of “working” and “non-working” marketing expenditure is not helping.

  • Clients have different business problems and marketing objectives. An indiscriminate notion of best practice is at best naïve and at worst dangerous. We can certainly identify some best principles and see how they might apply to similar marketing or business objectives, but to think that one client’s campaign development process can be effectively transplanted into another is self-evidently wrong. We’ve known this as an industry for a long time; retail accounts have almost always existed in a world of their own because of their differing demands. And, if we want to, we can differentiate equally between other types of client business - and be more sophisticated about designing relationships to meet their specific needs.

  • Agencies are employer brands and their accounts create markets that attract their own talent to greater or lesser degrees. As career opportunities go, the ad industry is notoriously unforgiving, so individual success rests on both the calibre of agencies individuals have worked for and calibre of the accounts they’ve worked on. They vie for the best accounts and win or lose largely depending upon their talent. The calibre or attractiveness of an account is relative, but if clients want better talent they need to think on an individual level as well as an agency level….

  • …because the better the agency the better the client, and therefore the better the talent. But, agencies equally won’t assign their best people to less attractive clients in their portfolio mostly because a) it makes no sense and b) the talent will either quit and leave the agency or, worse, quit and stay. There are occasional account transformations which have been achieved by agency leaders, but that’s usually born from a crisis of the client’s need, very rarely by the agency’s initiative.

  • Clients must recognise that if they want their agencies to be responsible for the agency’s campaigns’ performance, the agency must have control consistent with that responsibility. The procurement and campaign development processes that are becoming industry standard diminish that control. Reduced resources, tougher action-standards and KPIs all create highly inefficient defensive, protective-aggressive behaviours between clients and agencies. Being clear about responsibility and control - and designing the processes accordingly - makes more efficient and much more productive relationships that attract and retain talent within the agency.

  • Likewise procurement has to have responsibility consistent with procurement’s control. When I asked a group of ten people from the marketing procurement community if any of them had a personal bonus attached to a marketing “saving”, ten hands went up. When I asked the same group if any of them were accountable to for the value of the marketing services they procured - no hands.

I’ve developed and used these kinds of insights and principles and produced a strategic framework that I now call The Monkey House that designs client/agency relationships and remuneration methods according to the needs of the client business and the client’s particular circumstances.

It doesn’t matter what the client’s problem is, from a cynical, opportunist, money-for-gold-type operation (though happily not a client of mine) to a giant international portfolio of brands. When I applied what is now called The Monkey House to the Post Office’s creative pitch last year the innovative approach to the process achieved both a great result for the Post Office and significant praise from the winning agency DLKW/Lowe, but also from the other competing agencies, who were not successful.

But it takes some bravery to do things differently. Thankfully I had the bravery and trust of a progressive thinker in the form of Pete Markey, CMO at the Post Office, as my client. We innovated and it paid off.

All corners of the Agency, Marketing and Procurement triangle have to start with the underlying client need and build their relationships according to that need, but be ready to do things differently. The client/agency relationship mess has been born from low-trust zero-sum games – we need shared interests to build higher-trust, collaborative, creative two-sum relationships. The industry does need some new thinking to get us out of the situation that the old thinking got us into – but it doesn’t need Einstein – just a few more who are unafraid to innovate.

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