Will Harris
Will Harris
A view from Will Harris

Will Harris: Get the agency set-up you always yearned for

When your struggling agency suddenly acknowledges that your business is its most attractive asset to potential buyers, it's time to bring your wishlist to the negotiating table.

Q: I have had a productive three-year relationship with my creative agency, but it has lost a number of other key accounts and is now looking to get taken over. The chief executive wants to negotiate retaining my brand's business. What reassurances do I need to seek?

A: I'm all for small children, petting animals and world peace, but when it comes to your agency relationship, you have to be utterly selfish. This is one of the few occasions when you can say, with some justification, it's all about me, me, me.

Your agency is about to merge with a bigger agency, but only in the sense that Germany 'merged' with Poland in 1939. The chief executive is trying to salvage something from the wreckage. In his quest to ensure all that polyboard has not died in vain, you and your account become his biggest bargaining chip.

His conversations with his would-be saviours/asset-strippers run along the lines of how valuable your business is to them, how much you as a client company value the relationship, how you are poised to double, treble, even quadruple your spend and, finally, how you personally can't get out of bed without calling him. I once read that Robert Maxwell used to ring his lackeys wherever he was in the world, to ask what the time was. As the surviving client in a sinking ship, you will be portrayed as a modern Maxwell.

Hone your strategy

All this matters because here, finally, is your point of leverage by which you can get the agency set-up you always yearned for. That annoying planner who thinks he is smarter than you, but adds no value? Gone. The smart grad who does all the work for no reward? Promoted. The regular tickets to the rugby for you and your kids? Restored. The extra fees for the ludicrous studio work? Quashed. That new creative team you were promised? Hired. The list goes on.

Everyone's wishlist varies. Mine is this: I want the best people working on my business; I want to be the account with the lowest profit margin in the agency; and I want to be the most awarded. I want the agency to think of us as one giant loss-leading new-business exercise.

All this is now possible. For a brief, tantalising period, you have the upper hand in the client-agency relationship. Enjoy it while it lasts.


Will Harris is a former marketing director for Nokia in the UK and Asia region. He was the first marketing director of the Conservative Party and launch marketing director of the O2 brand.