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  • David Meikle

My wife is dating again.

OK. Guilty. In a slightly cynical manner I borrowed your interest with an offbeat headline, sorry. But please bear with me – I’ll get to an important point. Just pretend for a minute that my wife had been dating again.

We might have had a conversation something like this:

Me: “Have you got any plans for the weekend, darling?”

My wife: “I've got a couple of first dates lined up, that’s all.” she replies casually.

Awkward silence as the sense of incredulous disbelief visibly builds in my face.

Me: “WHAT?” I scream, “Are you bloody joking???”

My wife: “No, I’m perfectly serious.” She says, cool as a cucumber. “There’s no need to worry, I’m not looking to actually sleep with anybody, I just want to have a look around. I’m having a couple of dates, but that’s all, it won’t go any further.”

Me: “No need to worry? What the bloody hell are you talking about? Why do you even want to look around in the first place?... Have I done something wrong, is that it? What the hell is going on? We’ve only been married two years – why on earth would you do this???”

My wife: “You’re really overreacting darling, don't be so defensive! There’s honestly nothing wrong, I’m very happy with you, and our marriage.

It’s just that, well…. before we even got married I agreed with my family that every two years, regardless of what was going on between us, I’d test the water to see if there was anything out there I was missing.”

Perhaps you’ve seen through my cunningly constructed metaphor by now.

The headline on the front page of Campaign Magazine last week read: “House of Fraser calls review.” If everything I read in the accompanying article is true, then this is something they do as a matter of course every two years. So, my wife is House of Fraser, her family is their procurement department and I am 18 Feet & Rising, their incumbent advertising agency.

OK, it’s not a perfect analogy, but nonetheless I think it makes a valid point. And neither House of Fraser nor 18 Feet & Rising are alone in this.

Because if you can empathise with me in this scenario for only a second you’ll have some insight about how agency folks can feel about frequent “reviews”. You don’t need to be a therapist to know that my character is likely going to feel confused, worried, mistreated, betrayed and ultimately very, very pissed off.

Back to my mini-drama:

A few days later and my wife returns from being out on a date.

My wife: “Hello, darling!”

Me: “Hmmmpf”

My wife: “Look. Don’t be so silly. I’m not going anywhere with anybody. Not now anyway. I’ll have a look again in another couple of years and then we’ll see, OK? Don’t be Mr Grumpy! Everything is just how it was.”

But it isn’t, is it? That seed of doubt has been sown.

When agencies challenge such policies the response from their clients is usually something along the lines of “It’s our company policy.” or “It’s just business, don’t take it personally.” and this is the mistake; because employing ad agencies isn’t just about the exchange of money for goods services like any other. Social norms need to be considered because advertising is an intrinsically human business, and the way advertising people feel about their clients makes a difference.

If it were a car wash you wouldn’t depend upon the relationship with those who wash your car – because you can check that they’ve done it properly. But if you’re asking people to invent strategies and develop creative ideas, you can’t test that they’ve done their level best, you have trust that they have. Sure, you can use consumer research to test whether what they recommend is competent of the job it has to do, but you can’t test what they didn’t give you in the first place - that extra script that never materialised because they didn’t stay late to write it that night - because their client pissed them off.

Whether they know it or not, advertisers depend upon what HR professionals call the discretionary effort of their agency people. It’s a useful term. Discretionary effort is that “extra mile” we all talk about that agencies' people often go for their clients – and neither reluctantly nor infrequently. It’s discretionary effort that takes a good idea and makes it great. It’s discretionary effort that makes agencies develop what their clients need, not just what they might want. Discretionary effort means "good enough" is not good enough.

But discretionary effort can’t be forced; it has to be inspired - by trusting, appreciative and respectful clients. Most marketers understand this, but when their procurement colleagues jeopardise these relationships with such review policies it can do real damage.

By no means is this to say that marketing procurement folks don't have a role. There's no reason they shouldn’t ask their marketing department about their agency’s performance – and regularly. Of course they should. Likewise, it is even advisable to measure their agency’s performance, and many do (though more would perhaps be wise to make the performance review genuinely reciprocal). But, if there’s nothing wrong, then it’s plain inappropriate and detrimental to the relationship to literally go and check-out the other talent as a policy.

To extend my metaphor a little, nobody likes talking to the guy at a party who is constantly looking around to see if there’s somebody prettier and/or more interesting to talk to. And, perhaps ironically, people who do behave that way at parties often find it more and more difficult to catch the eye of anybody worth talking to at all.

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