It is in the DNA of ad agencies to be competitive. When it comes to the prospect of winning new business, if you give an agency an inch it will take try to take a mile. That means being part of a roster is commonly viewed as a licence to wine, dine and poach chunks of business from roster counterparts.
Last week, however, it became clear that 3 is going to expect TBWA\London to share its brief with WCRS. And it's not alone: both BT and the BBC are asking their roster agencies to cast aside rivalries and collaborate on projects for the good of the brand. It's a tall order in an industry where paranoia, mistrust and gossip run amok.
Cilla Snowball, the chief executive of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, which is on the rosters of both BT and the BBC, says: "What is new is the sense that clients want to engage agencies on overarching issues. It happens all the time with the BBC and BT to work strategically and creatively across a range of projects. There are no tanks on the lawn or swiping other people's business."
Amanda Mackenzie, the director of marketing services at BT, says BT has adopted this approach because it has three advertising agencies, but one overarching brand. "Agencies realise it is a unique set-up but they are good at working together. We do it because we don't have a choice. We have a big brand that has to stretch a long way. We cannot separate our brands. Agencies need to think about the whole. The whole should be greater than the sum of the parts," she says.
Although still uncommon above the line, this process has already been tried in media. Pete Edwards, the managing director of Starcom Motive, says: "The same principles apply whether it is splitting planning and buying or advertising and media. Some of the best work ever done for Stella came from all the agencies sitting in a room together. If there is one big idea, collaboration works because no-one exercises ownership."
He points to Honda, which uses a team of people from each of its agencies - Wieden & Kennedy, Naked, Starcom and Hicklin Slade - called The Dream Factory.
Both BT and the BBC use agencies of different strengths and sizes, a strategy that Robert Senior, a partner at Fallon (another BT and BBC agency), says is critical to making collaboration work.
"The principles at the BBC and BT are the same. Both have been quite smart. Rather than a random beauty parade, they cover off what they need with the right resource. The client has to be big enough to accommodate it and treat agencies as partners not suppliers," he says.
A fact of life is that, if there is an opportunity, an ad agency will try to have a crack at winning more business. Snowball says that clients have a clear responsibility to exert strict roster control to maintain balance.
"You can never stop agencies being competitive: you'd be foolish to think you can. The best clients are recognising the value of being very clear on who gets what and why things change."
The BBC recognises this and Andy Duncan, its director of marketing communications, is known to rule attempts at poaching business or curry favour with an iron hand. The BBC maintains roster integrity by having clear rules for collaboration.
"Competition is healthy, but it is unhealthy if it crosses to rivalry," Helen Kellie, the controller of marketing strategy and planning at the BBC, says. "Everyone has their own territory and that is where we keep them. Now that doesn't mean business doesn't move, but we don't zip around the roster at a whim."
Mackenzie agrees: "You have to have clear rules of collaboration. An agency is naive if it turns up and has a go at something without being asked."
However, in practice, it can be difficult to adhere to this process.
Last year, BT held a pitch to find a third roster agency. The whole process became marred with paranoia and infighting as the incumbents, St Luke's and AMV, felt undermined and threatened by the arrival of not one but two new agencies in Fallon and Clemmow Hornby Inge. The next six months were destabilising and demoralising for the agencies with gossip and rumour rife. CHI, in particular, was resented by the rest of the roster, and by the end of the year the agency had split with BT.
As one BT insider put it: "It was a sort of agency abuse that is prevalent among large clients who feel that this system gets the best out of their agencies. But it isn't true. It has them taking their eye off briefs and worrying about the pecking order. BT was at a point of high dudgeon with their agencies over it and failed to realise it was of its own making."
Ultimately, collaboration can work but it can be a fragile process to control.
As one source puts it: "Wanting agencies to work together is want-ing your cake and eating it too. Combining the resources of a disparate array of agencies that never work together to provide a dynamic environment for a common cause is unreasonable."
But whatever agencies feel about it, the prestige and income on offer from advertisers such as BT and the BBC mean that if they want collaboration, agencies will just have to fall in line.