Feature

To have and to hold

Is it still possible to enjoy a long and happy client/agency marriage?

Long-lasting client/agency relationships are thin on the ground these days. Here, John Tylee looks at the few cherished marriages left in adland, and discovers the recipe for an enduring partnership.

It was a September morning in 1981 and FCB had just lost the British Airways account. In the mews outside the agency, sombre staffers were being addressed by their boss, Bill Barry, when two passenger planes passed overhead.

A pair of long-serving BA account handlers glanced instinctively skywards. The national flag carrier had been a client at the agency in some form since Clement Attlee was the prime minister. Now Margaret Thatcher, 10 Downing Street's newest incumbent, stood accused of making a present of the business to the Saatchi brothers. For the first time in UK advertising history, an account switch had made the national TV news.

For years, FCB employees had been looking up at the airborne traffic flying in and out of Heathrow and enjoying a brief moment of pride when they spotted BA's distinctive livery.

This time it was different. "The account handlers looked up, but a moment later were staring at their shoes," Andrew Cracknell, then FCB's executive creative director, recalls.

The rancour with which those directly involved in the FCB and BA split still speak, more than a quarter of a century later, is testament to the anguish that can ensue when a long-running agency/client relationship ends.

"It wasn't just the effect on the agency's profitability, but the fact that so much emotion had been invested in the account," Cracknell says. "Our collective self-confidence went. People began worrying that if the management could lose a piece of business the size of BA, what was the likelihood of their own accounts staying."

Gradually, clients began picking up the vibes. By the mid-80s, Dulux had ended a 25-year relationship, while Heinz, frustrated by FCB's management problems, fired the agency. These were hammer blows from which it never fully recovered.

If FCB's fate proves anything, it's that enduring client relationships are like marriages. While they exist and work well, they're a great source of stability and comfort for both parties. When they end, the fallout may be acrimonious and long-lasting.

Hardly surprising, when a long-standing client's influence on an agency can be profound. When a boardroom coup threatened to oust Bruce Mason, the chairman of FCB's True North parent, in the mid-90s, it was SC Johnson, the cleaning products manufacturer and an FCB client since 1953, that came to his rescue.

And when Publicis Groupe's Maurice Levy mounted a hostile bid for True North in 1997, it was SC Johnson's threat to pull the $400 million business out of FCB should Levy succeed that saw him off.

Only last year, the company interceded again, forcing FCB's Inter- public owner to order its McCann Erickson subsidiary to withdraw from the $1.5 billion Reckitt Benckiser pitch and resign its Boots Healthcare International business because of what it claimed was conflict.

Whether or not clients of the future will hang around long enough to become such important power brokers is questionable. Even now, the number of enduring marriages are few and becoming fewer.

It seems inconceivable that there could ever be another relationship to match that of BBDO and General Electric, which stretches back to 1920. And what of Beiersdorf? The Nivea manufacturer, originally a client of the German-based Wilkens network, remained on board when FCB acquired Wilkens in 1997. This month, agency and client celebrate 100 years of that relationship.

Moreover, the number reduces to a handful once the car manufacturers are stripped out. They include Ford, which has worked with JWT in the US since 1943 and Ogilvy & Mather in Europe since 1975, Audi and BMW, the founding clients of Bartle Bogle Hegarty and WCRS respectively, and Renault, which has been with Publicis since 1963.

To an extent, these relationships are born of necessity. For one thing, a car client looking to review has very few options. For another, car accounts are complex pieces of business.

John Banks, Imagination's executive chairman, led O&M's pitch for Ford's UK business and ran the account for nine years. He says: "The agency becomes so embedded in the business that a review becomes a massive pain in the arse for the client. As long as you don't screw up big time, you're usually OK."

"The amount of confidential information shared between us and our client is profound," George Rogers, the president and chief executive of Team Detroit, the JWT-led joint venture of six WPP agencies that runs Ford's US account, says. "We're working on programmes and launches stretching well into the future."

Of course, all this assumes that long-term relationships are always good for an agency. Some question whether this is necessarily so, and warn that big long-standing clients who take up so much of an agency's resource without adding to its creative reputation can be more trouble than they're worth.

As the creative director of the Bates agency in New York, Cracknell recalls asking members of the Mars account team (Mars had been a Bates client for more than 40 years) whether they thought they worked for the confectionary giant or the agency. None of them said the agency.

"Accounts like this can ghettoise an agency," Cracknell argues. "You end up with a big piece of business that 75 per cent of the agency has no interest in. These relationships can only work if these accounts evolve into creative award-winning flagship businesses."

Meanwhile, there's the perpetual risk of losing a long-standing client that's close to one agency senior staffer. When a disenchanted Paul Weinberger quit as Lowe London's chairman for The Red Brick Road, the £45 million Tesco account followed him, ending the Interpublic agency's 20-year tenure of the business.

The demise of relations spanning decades may have much to do with the death of the full-service agency and the emergence of media independents in the 80s. Not only did agencies no longer control client budgets, but their rush to the stock market precipitated a major change in their commercial approach. New business became a priority because shareholders demanded it.

Today, other factors combine to keep relationships short. The influence of client procurement specialists, the high turnover of marketing directors and the lack of one-to-one contact at senior level are said to be partly to blame. But there are other reasons.

One is the fact that the ad industry is losing the war for talent. "We've not hired an MBA in years," a global network chief admits. "They're all going off to Wall Street or Google because they're sexy and exciting."

"It means client confidence in agencies is suffering," a former network regional boss explains.

But if clients and agencies really are committed to moving together beyond the honeymoon stage and into wedded bliss, what's the secret? Gavin Patterson, the managing director consumer at BT Group, an Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO client for 13 years, has this advice: "Keep the objectives clear, the bar high and the dialogue close."

In part, it's about compatible cultures. WCRS has handled BMW's UK business for 27 years. But Robin Wight, a WCRS founding partner, says long-term supplier relationships are the norm for the German car-maker. "BMW tests us all the time," he adds. "But we have the kind of relationship that allows us to sort out issues without the need for a review."

Mutual patience and tolerance play a key part. As one ex-agency boss puts it: "If there's a problem, it's important that the agency is confident enough to ask the client for three months in which to fix it - and for the client to allow them that time."

There's probably no better illustration of this than what happened in the early days of the alliance between Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO and The Economist before the iconic "white-out-of-red" work emerged.

Twenty years and countless creative awards later, the magazine has seen a 65 per cent increase in its UK circulation. Yet the early days of the relationship were a testing time, as the agency failed to crack the creative brief and some voices within the client company questioned whether the account should go back out to pitch.

However, David Hanger, then The Economist's publisher, stayed his hand. It was, he reasoned, a difficult brief to extend the magazine's appeal beyond its loyal core readership to those who thought it a "not-for-me, specialist-and-rather-difficult-to-read" publication.

"We knew it was a joint problem and we knew the excellent work AMV was capable of," he says. "We thought that if it wasn't cracking the brief, then may-be it was our fault. We wanted to raise the level of creativity, not lower it."

Equally significant has been the level of continuity on the business. Helen Alexander was a key figure in AMV's appointment and she remains with the group today as its chief executive.

Keeping the relationship fresh and never taking it for granted is just as important. "Never treat a long-standing client like a piece of furniture," Wight warns. "If you do, it's you who will be sat on." Jacqui Kean, The Economist's brand marketing director, claims the relationship with AMV works because both parties "constantly challenge the status quo" to produce outstanding advertising that delivers results.

US forces had driven the Japanese off Guadalcanal only 11 months before Ford appointed JWT to its US business. The fact the account remains within the network more than 60 years later is down to JWT's ability to keep pace with the car-maker's business development, Bob Jeffrey, JWT's worldwide chief executive, says.

"We took Ford into branded content way before it became popular among agencies and clients, we've leveraged our relationship with the dealers to enhance our insight into the brand and we ensure we keep the strongest possible team on this business," he says.

Effective creative work plays a vital part in keeping a relationship on a firm footing. "It's something you have to keep doing," John Hegarty, the chairman of BBH, whose Levi Strauss and Audi clients have each clocked up 27 years at the agency, says. "It may not necessarily keep you the business - but it certainly helps."

Sometimes, long-term relationships can benefit from a trial separation. In 1998, Ford of Europe relieved O&M of lead agency status and handed it to Young & Rubicam, which took on the Fiesta and Focus brands. Within two years, the company did an about-turn and moved the business back.

Some believe that, at a time of short-term-ism, it's easy to forget the value of long-term relationships.

"Established business is where you make your money," John Bartle, the BBH founding partner, insists. "Nobody should be making much profit from a piece of business during the first couple of years. If you are, you're probably under-servicing it.

"It's during that time that you have to familiarise yourself with the account and the people. You can't expect the client to pay for that. It's your investment. The longer you keep the business, the more likely it is to bear fruit."

AMERICAN EXPRESS - OGILVY & MATHER

Agency appointed 1961

High points: David Ogilvy's creation of the highly memorable "Don't leave home without it" campaign for the American Express card in 1975. Amex continues to use celebrities in its ads to this day.

The appearance in 2004 of the "My life. My card" campaign that enabled Amex to tackle the problem of rival card issuers offering premium benefits and services at cheaper rates. US spending on Amex consumer cards increased by 15 per cent in 2005, more than any other card.

Low point: Amex's 1991 decision to drop Ogilvy & Mather for Chiat Day. O&M won back the account within 11 months.

Shelly Lazarus worldwide chief executive, Ogilvy & Mather "Amex stands for a remarkable service ethic. Their point of view is: whatever your issue is as a card member, Amex will take care of it and will not be satisfied until every card member is satisfied. Building a great brand takes a lot of work because it doesn't just happen. You need to constantly challenge everything you're doing."

LEVI STRAUSS - BARTLE BOGLE HEGARTY

Agency appointed 1982

High point: Bartle Bogle Hegarty's iconic "launderette" spot of 1985. One of the most famous commercials of the decade, it combined humour and Nick Kamen's sex appeal to take jeans advertising into new territory. Marvin Gaye's I Heard It Through the Grapevine became synonymous with the brand.

Low point: Last summer's rumours that Levi's, battling plummeting sales in the UK and Europe, was talking to other agencies. The company rubbished the reports and the account has stayed put.

John Hegarty chairman and worldwide creative director, Bartle Bogle Hegarty "Clients get the advertising they deserve, and Levi's has been a fantastic client. They have been challenging and, sometimes, exasperating. But fashion is a fickle world. Levi's respect us and understand when things don't go absolutely right."

Mike Joubert European vice-president of marketing, Levi Strauss "The agency goes out of its way to understand our brand and provide us with forward-looking thinking."

SAINSBURY'S - AMV

Agency appointed 1979

High point: Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO's reappointment to the business in 2005 (when nobody gave it a cat-in-hell's chance) and playing a significant role in the company's subsequent recovery.

Low point: Losing the TV brief to M&C Saatchi in 1999. The business was moved back to AMV the next year.

Cilla Snowball group chairman, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO "Sainsbury's has been defining for AMV. As one of our first clients, it shaped the way we do things. It taught us how to manage big accounts, work at speed, drive quality and creativity. It is at the heart of our business, brand and culture."

Gwyn Burr customer director, Sainsbury's "Our relationship with AMV continues to evolve and strengthen. Creative development and the fast-paced delivery of material during our key recovery phase has more than vindicated the decision to continue the relationship."

FORD - NORTH AMERICA JWT

Agency appointed 1943

High points: The 1991 launch campaign for the Explorer, which has been the best-selling mid-sized sports utility vehicle in the US each year since its introduction.

The launch of the F150 pick-up truck three years ago. The first to bring car-like comfort to a commercial vehicle, the model sold 900,000 during its first year and continues to outsell its major rivals.

Low point: Trying to keep driving potential customers into the showrooms despite the company's staggering $12.7 billion loss last year.

George Rogers president and chief executive, Team Detroit "Our relationship with Ford is very much like the ones it has with its component suppliers. They go back many years. Delivering car communication isn't just an art, but also a science."

Jim Cain spokesman, Ford North America "The fact JWT has been working on our business for such a long time enables it to give us real insight and wisdom."

TIPS FOR A LONG MARRIAGE

- Do everything to ensure that you and your incoming client are culturally compatible and share the same values.

- Work hard to get the relationship through the sensitive early stages and into a phase when both parties can be totally honest with each other.

- Try to create an atmosphere of mutual tolerance and patience.

- Keep a strong team on the business. And make sure it has a good balance of new blood and experience.

- Maintain a high standard of effective creative work.

- If you've made a mistake, admit it.

- Never take the relationship for granted. Keep finding ways of making yourself indispensable to your client.

- Ensure that agency and client audit their relationship on a regular basis.

- Keep aware of key personnel changes at the top of the client company and make sure you establish a rapport with the newcomers.

- Don't short-change a long-standing client by overstretching yourself.