OPINION: MELSOM ON ... CLIENT CONFLICTS

During my time at J. Walter Thompson I worked on the TSB account when the agency also had NatWest. I remember being challenged by conscientious advertising people in other agencies (who really cared about the rules of client conflict) as to how this could be justified. The answer was well rehearsed - the TSB was only a savings bank started by some shepherds on a Scottish mountain, and NatWest was a trading bank, with current accounts and business customers. We got away with this for years - long after the TSB launched its current account and opened accounts for businesses.

During my time at J. Walter Thompson I worked on the TSB account

when the agency also had NatWest. I remember being challenged by

conscientious advertising people in other agencies (who really cared

about the rules of client conflict) as to how this could be justified.

The answer was well rehearsed - the TSB was only a savings bank started

by some shepherds on a Scottish mountain, and NatWest was a trading

bank, with current accounts and business customers. We got away with

this for years - long after the TSB launched its current account and

opened accounts for businesses.



The standard joke on this matter is ’When is a conflict not a

conflict?’, the answer being ’when it’s a specialism’. In the fashion

sector, for example, where one single agency working on competing

products routinely carries out the selling of clothing to an absurdly

complicated audience of 16- to 20-year-old males, clients have a choice.

Do they plump for the agency that knows and understands the market, or

do they go left-field and teach an inexperienced agency why customers

will get a warmer feeling in these jeans than those combat trousers.



A quick straw poll of some of our clients reveals some

consistencies.



Not one of them believes in the principle of Chinese walls - all are

aware that if they appoint an agency, the research, experiences and

understanding gleaned will be regenerated for the benefit of future

clients.



Also, clients actually like the idea of an agency that has been through

the experience before - at someone else’s expense.



What’s more, an agency search conducted solely on the basis of client

conflict and agency availability would probably throw up a very strange

and limited choice. And as we all know, client lists are never exactly

as they seem. Agencies tend to keep client names on their lists even if

the advertiser has really moved on - so what may appear to be a conflict

often isn’t at all.



And isn’t it funny that there’s so much concern about above-the-line

advertising when publishers print competing magazines, direct marketers

have much more leeway over conflicts, and specialist marketers are free

to specialise?



It almost seems as if people are looking for problems - and when you do,

they’re not hard to find. Here’s one example: a media agency has two

beer clients and they both want the centre-break spot in the Champions’

League game tonight - which one gets it?



And here’s another: a creative agency handles an upmarket car account,

and John Prescott storms in and says he wants a campaign to get all

toffs off the road. How does the agency’s corporate conscience cope with

this dilemma?



The more relaxed view that Procter & Gamble is now taking to this kind

of situation is being reflected in attitudes elsewhere. Ultimately

conflict can, and will, only be resolved by appealing to the

sensibilities and sensitivities of the client. You’ll just have to ask

them.



Andrew Melsom is managing director of Agency Insight.



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