Editorial: Clients have to transform their attitudes to conflict

News that AOL may decide to part company with Grey because of the agency's involvement in the BSkyB pitch offers more reinforcement (if any were needed) of the argument for a more common-sense approach to conflict.

The reluctance of AOL to share its agency with Sky shows how the relentless convergence of businesses is raising issues that would have seemed unimaginable a few years ago.

Today, Sky's offer of a free broadband connection seems to have scuppered any chance of peaceful co-existence with another broadband content provider. Such a situation is the by-product of convergence, ongoing client company consolidation and the demand for total integration.

In the past, mutual acceptance of conflict restrictions has been advantageous for both agency networks and clients. However, the rise of the client procurement specialist has had the effect of loading the advantages of conflict agreements much more heavily in favour of the clients.

The fact is, hardline client attitudes towards conflict are becoming ever more unrealistic and unsustainable. In the most extreme of cases, they offer no real benefit and they tend to be enforced as some form of "loyalty test".

The need for rigid conflict restrictions often do not bear close scrutiny. It is not in an agency's interest to betray plans upon whose success their rewards may depend. And it's certainly a bit rich for those clients who enter agreements to manufacture, package or distribute each other's products, to insist on separate agency arrangements.

So what's to be done? Agencies need to prove to clients that the segregation of business means just that. "Chinese walls" must be real, not imaginary. Systems have to be there to ensure sensitive information does not pass from one team to another.Also, more use could be made of non-disclosure agreements, but these should not give clients carte blanche. There is a case for saying exclusivity should be restricted to named competitors, not complete sectors. Above all, though, no client should be allowed to buy exclusivity on the cheap.

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