On the Campaign couch
A view from Jeremy Bullmore

On the Campaign couch

Do you think clients are getting worse – demanding extended payments and money to appear on a roster – and, if so, what do you think should be done about it?

Clients have always been getting worse. So have creative standards. The two may well be linked.

Nobody recognises a golden age until 30 years after it’s all over; and only then through extremely selective spectacles. Those of us who lived through the last golden age remember bemoaning the fact that creative standards were at an all-time low and that clients had become increasingly risk-averse and mean-spirited.

But, this time, on the single issue of agency relationships, I do think (some) clients have got worse, and quantifiably so. What’s more, they will live to regret it; but, unfortunately, by the time they come to their senses, great harm will have been done, not least to their own brands. And I take no satisfaction in saying that.

As attentive readers may have noticed, I’ve never been a believer in the "partnership" model of agency/client relationships. True partnerships are between equals; true partnerships share risks as well as rewards. No client/agency relationship has ever met either criterion, nor will they ever.

The client is in possession of the chequebook and thus ultimate power; the agency has no power, only influence. And influence, moreover, that’s totally dependent on continued performance and powers of persuasion. How can they pretend to be partners?

The agency persuades the client to spend £50 million on a new and unorthodox campaign. It delivers nothing. The client loses £50 million and the agency loses nothing but the business. How can they pretend to be partners?

The sensational client is the one who knows all this – but is never, never daft enough to mention it.

Before the end of the commission system, agencies never competed on price. None of them wanted to and, anyway, the IPA wouldn’t let them. So they competed entirely on service; and, boy, did the better ones deliver. Clients got qualitative research, experimental kitchen facilities, conference programmes, reserve campaigns and international co-ordination – and they all came "free" with the ads.

The sensational client of today behaves as if nothing has changed. The sensational client of today is as astute at recognising the essential nature of agency people as the agency should be at recognising the essential nature of consumers. The driving instinct of every agency person is to over-deliver.

With a few essential exceptions, the best people in agencies wish they never had to think about money.

They just long to do wonderful work for their clients and be loved as a result. The best clients understand this absolutely. They are therefore very good at loving and their reward is vast.

Today’s worst clients remind their agencies on an hourly basis of their master/servant relationship.

Money dominates discussion. Procurement people, rewarded themselves on their ability to screw suppliers, naturally do everything they can to screw suppliers. Nothing bares the truth of the relationship more embarrassingly than the negotiating table. At one end, a party with four aces in the fist; at the other, a party with a busted flush – whose only available bluff is to jettison a valued bit of business that they know a dozen other excellent agencies will compete for heedlessly.

These aren’t clever clients. These are very stupid clients. They will change their agencies for the wrong reasons and far too frequently. Their brands, starved of care and consistency, will become, first, less widely valued – and so, inevitably, less profitable.

What’s to be done about it? A mass agency walkout would not only be illegal but comically impractical.

I’m optimistic enough to believe that, as it becomes ever-more evident that good clients are far more likely to be commercially successful than bad clients, common sense will prevail. But it won’t happen this year.

What is your view of marketing directors calling reviews at the start of August ahead of a pitch the week after the August bank holiday? Do you suspect they enjoy the thought of agencies sweating away through the holiday season? And should my agency be wary or impressed by such behaviour?

Wary. See above.

"Ask Jeremy", a collection of Jeremy Bullmore’s Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10.Telephone (020) 8267 4919
Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haymarket.com or Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP