Close-Up: Why ad marriage is not to be entered into lightly

The AAR reveals that agencies new to an account now have only 50 days to get things right. John Tylee offers some guidance.

If new AAR research is right, patience isn't only a virtue but a luxury that hard-pressed clients can no longer afford in their agency relationships.

Time was when marriage between agency and client was follow-ed by an extended honeymoon period during which each other's idiosyncrasies were tolerated while they got to know each other.

But changing times seem to have put an end to such mutual forbear-ance. Three years ago, an AAR survey suggested that clients and agencies had just 100 days to get their alliance on a firm footing.

And if that doesn't sound like much time in which to iron out the glitches, how much harder is it to do within 50 days? Yet that's how long agencies now have in which to get their acts together, a new study from the intermediary has found.

In short, clients have become intolerant of tolerance. They expect any new agency taking on their business to be able to hit the ground running. If it can't, there's the grow-ing prospect of a quickie divorce.

The AAR's verdict follows 60 interviews with clients and agencies. According to Kerry Glazer, the AAR chief executive, the results are "scarily consistent".

Linsey Wooldridge, an ex-senior marketer at Harrods and a former head of marketing for the Westfield shopping centre, now the AAR's business director, oversaw the research. She says that agencies "now have little more than four weeks in which to know a new client's business and be fully accountable. That's pretty frightening."

Wooldridge claims much of this is a result of a changing media landscape. "Agencies are expected to be on their client's case 24/7," she contends. "But it's also due to the tremendous pressures that clients are under. They are time-poor and they need answers from their agencies right away."

However, Glazer claims it would be an over-simplification to blame the recession alone. "It's been exacerbated by the downturn but the downturn hasn't caused it," she argues. "In fact, clients and agencies aren't only working harder than ever before but agencies are getting even better at what they do."

Ironically, the AAR's findings suggest that it's the little niggles, not the big issues, that often turn out to be the final straw in breaking agency/client relationships. It may be something as trivial as the agency team arriving five minutes late for an update meeting or a contact report going astray that brings matters to a head.

Glazer, though, suggests that the trivial things are usually the manifestation of more fundamental relationship problems. "Niggles will widen a fracture but they don't cause it," she explains. "It's the unreal expectations and the failure to resolve the fundamentals of the relationship from the beginning which do that."

Wooldridge carries the marriage analogy a stage further, pointing out how the new life that's being forged by agency and client may be hit by the equivalent of "trouble with the in-laws". In this case, the "in-law" may be the chief executive of the client company who has heard about the marketing director's brilliant new agency partner and wants to become involved.

"Suddenly, the agency finds itself dealing with the extended client family, meaning more levels of approval and extra pressure on the relationship," she says.

This, though, may just be one of a wide range of issues that don't get sorted out from the off, which are then left unchecked and ultimately cause the marriage to fall apart. It can start with something as basic as the contract. Glazer says it's not unusual for a contract still not to have been signed one year into a relationship.

"The draft simply goes into the client's legal department and doesn't come out," she points out. "That's maybe because the legal team has discovered what it thinks is a 'deal breaker' clause. But the relationship is just allowed to carry on regardless. It's essential to get the contract signed and sealed from the beginning."

However, the contract is just one of the prerequisites to a successful relationship. "Agree from the outset how you're going to work together," Glazer advises. "Make sure the brief is signed off by the person who will judge the work. Agencies tend to say yes to everything and just get on with it. But they should refuse to accept briefs that haven't been properly thought through or signed off."

For their part, agencies should never move a staffer a client likes and trusts from the account without consulting them first, the AAR suggests. And they should think about following Adam & Eve's example of temporarily closing their doors to new business after winning two big accounts - John Lewis and Phones 4u - in rapid succession.

"This is particularly true for a small agency taking on a large piece of business," Glazer says. "And no agency should be doing more than one big pitch at a time."

Follow a few simple rules and there's no reason why agencies and clients can't still build strong relationships. But the honeymoon period appears to be over.

PARTNERSHIP PRINCIPLES - THE TEN COMMANDMENTS

1. Exit well

Managing the exiting agencies can be a critical consideration for the incoming agency, in terms of transferring key knowledge and information. It allows both parties to get the most out of the first weeks of a relationship as well as treating the outgoing agency with respect.

2. Start right

Set the partnership up right from day one. Spend time understanding how each other's business operates; examine and agree working practices at all levels of the client/agency team, not just at senior level. Share the business vision and plan, set clear expectations and clearly define roles. Work to one agenda.

3. Give (and get) great briefs

Briefs for projects or campaigns should be given in writing and signed off by the person who is going to judge or approve the proposed solution. Agencies should have the confidence to challenge weak briefs. Make this part of your agreed working practices.

4. Avoid 'death by a thousand cuts' feedback on work

Feedback on work will be unclear and inconsistent if it is "drip-fed" back to the agency by different stakeholders over a period of time; a single, amalgamated client view should be sought.

5. One team, one agenda

The most aligned relationships are those where the combined team works to shared targets and business goals, with transparent bonus schemes. Be prepared to share the pain as well as the good times.

6. Regularly review SLAs and KPIs

Often set at contract stage, there is still a need to review these on a regular basis as the realities of the scope of work and working together as a team develop.

7. Consistent resource

Moving a much-valued team member off a client's business, without consulting or involving the client in their replacement, puts significant pressure on the relationship.

8. Induct new people thoroughly

Make sure that any new people joining the team get the same quality of induction and handover as was delivered at the outset of the relationship.

9. Demonstrate hunger, passion and proactivity

Consistently during the relationship - not just when the client calls a review of the business.

10. Have fun together ... but remember it's all about the output

Getting on well and enjoying working together makes everything easier; but don't focus on the "relationship" at the expense of getting the work right and delivering effective output. Without that, you don't have a relationship.

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