Can the agency/client rift be fixed?

Locked in mutual dependency, agencies and clients have always behaved like married couples who bicker about leaving the toilet seat up.

Now, though, what were once minor irritants have become so serious that the marriage partners seem in need of some major counselling. The problem manifested itself in the recent Heinz pitch, which was pilloried by the IPA for its e-auction, lengthy payment terms and the decoupling of production from the creative agency. This, however, seems to be merely symptomatic of deeper frustrations that were highlighted in the IPA report on agency/client relationships. The study revealed client alarm at agencies’ failure to understand their businesses, their lack of investment in talent and their ivory-tower existence. Meanwhile, agencies complained of being undervalued and at the mercy of cheese-paring procurement specialists while not getting paid properly for their ideas. Perhaps such a rift was inevitable given the pressure on time-poor clients to perform in markets that grow relentlessly more cut-throat. What can be done to put the marriage back on track? 

Trade body

Hugh Burkitt, chief executive, Marketing Society

"We can deceive ourselves into believing that there was once a golden era in agency/client relationships. The fact is there have always been tensions.

"Both sides must start listening to each other. Clients must understand the implications of agencies being asked to do more and more for less and less.

"Agencies need to understand when clients complain that they are more concerned with appearances than effectiveness.

"Pitch consultants, who are now increasingly preoccupied with managing agency/client relationships, could have an important role to play."


April Redmond, chief marketing officer, Kerry Foods

"Saatchi & Saatchi treats our business as if it was its own and is always proactive on the issues we face. Relationships won’t work if the agency is only interested in the next TV commercial.

"However, I agree with agencies’ fears about procurement and the pressure it puts on them. I’ve noticed how little procurement people understand the agency business. Agencies can’t produce great creative work for clients unless they’re able to invest in talent.

"Forums that try to bring both sides together tend to be manufactured and don’t change relationships. These have to be built on an ongoing basis."

Trade body

Scott Knox, managing director, Marketing Agencies Association

"Clients don’t trust the agency sector. They think agencies will drop them as soon as a better prospect comes along. They need to be building long-term partnerships and stop expecting to be given everything they need at the pitch stage.

"Agencies must be taken more seriously by clients as partners in finding business solutions. That won’t happen while clients insist on doing business via e-auctions.

"Nothing will happen while we have cosy chats with client middleweights and we publish joint best-practice guidelines that change nothing. Change has to be from the top down – and the bosses have to be involved."


Zaid Al-Zaidy, chief executive, McCann London

"When I joined Unilever as a graduate trainee, it was drilled into us from day one that you should treat your agency like a respected partner and you couldn’t command access to its best talent simply because you were the client.

"I worry that this attitude is no longer being instilled in marketers at the early stages of their careers.

"For their part, agencies need to prove to clients they can operate at 60,000 feet as well as on the ground to deliver brilliant, modern executions, at pace, on their own or in collaboration with the right partners."