The managing director of a top ten agency once told me a wonderful
story about client obsession with pitch confidentiality. Asked one day
if his agency would pitch for a secret project, the client said to him:
’By the way, you don’t mind if we send you over a copy of our legally
binding confidentiality agreement?’
’Not at all,’ my agency friend replied. ’I’m sure you won’t mind if we
send you ours.’ At this point, he said, he could almost hear the client
gasping with astonishment at his effrontery. Don’t you just wish there
were more agencies with the same degree of confidence about what they
I mention this merely as a prelude to my subject this week, which is the
idea of agencies suing clients, either directly or - as in the case of
the Lowe Group, Marvin Sloves and the dollars 125 million Mercedes-Benz
business - indirectly. When I first joined Campaign, this kind of story
fell into what journalists would call the ’man bites dog’ category - ie
it was so rare it was guaranteed front-page treatment. Not so today.
Putting the Lowe Group case to one side, in the US J. Walter Thompson
has pursued Dell, and DMB&B Gateway 2000. Over here I know of at least
one wrangle that could similarly end up in legal action.
Traditionalists will tut-tut and say this is a bad state of affairs for
the industry as a whole. The customer (ie the client) is always right.
Irrespective of circumstances, on no account should agencies seek to
take legal action if the client decides to move his or her business. Too
much of that and an agency will get a bad reputation.
I’ve had enough legal rows of my own to know court should be avoided
Nor, it could be argued, should agencies complain too much when they
lose business to another agency in an underhand manner. Should the
situation be reversed, they would be only too happy to welcome the
incoming account aboard.
All this is true. On the other hand, I take a great deal of comfort from
seeing agencies that are prepared to, as some would put it, draw a line
in the sand.
For one thing, it shows me there are people who are prepared to stand up
for what they believe and who have a clear sense of what they are
For too long agencies have collectively allowed themselves to be kicked
around by clients. Psychiatrists would describe such behaviour as
characteristic of those with a low sense of self-esteem - and I can
think of more than a few agencies that fall into this category when
faced with some big clients. The danger for agencies of having a victim
mentality is that it becomes self-fulfilling. Long term, it encourages
clients to devalue the service they get from their agencies. Provided it
is not done recklessly, agencies should be applauded for their
Ah, but is this really the correct thing for a service company to do?
It’s too easy to confuse the word ’service’ with being servile. Genuine
partners - which is what the best agencies insist they are - know the