Close-Up: Clients and agencies unite in the face of crunch

The annual Campaign event addressed many issues, but found clients and agencies broadly as one, Mark Sinnock writes.

I attended therapy last week. It was one of those painful experiences that starts out with an expose of a few home truths, grows through disillusionment, but ultimately ends on a high when you stop arguing and you begin to realise that everybody is trying to get to the same place. From fundamental vehemence to glorious agreement in a single judo throw. Therapy is clearly a love-hate-love thing.

I'm talking about the annual Campaign client-agency session, when people from the two "sides" of our industry, the client side and agency side (Mars and Venus), get together to prove how incompatible they are as partners and to debate the rights and wrongs that are so obvious to each other.

To start the day, there was plenty of acrimony and finger-pointing. Beautifully spun stories of horrific account mess-ups, car-crash pitches, dog-end ideas, bloody briefs and god-awful clients were brilliantly set against the introduction from the chair, Diageo's head of advertising, digital, media, experiential and CRM, Garbhan O'Bric. He broke the ice with a "right lads, it's time to step up and sort it out, we're in a flippin' pickle and the man from the credit crunch is at the door" - or words to that effect.

What became apparent early on is that people care deeply about this "relationship", but it needs work as no-one is clear where it's going. The first panel set four clients the task of offering agencies an insight into what "clients" want from their agencies. Three words came back, which were all relative to the fading light of our economy: better, faster and cheaper. Actually, it was more complex, but emphasis was laid on "value beyond the brief", go the extra yard, no bullshit, innovate, lose the fat. Speed of thought and speed of action came through in spades, raising the question of agency's analogue and linear processes in today's digital world.

Noam Buchalter, the marketing manager of Marmite, and Matt Chambers, the brand director at House of Fraser, both made excellent points. One tackled agencies' desire to indulge creative departments by presenting ideas that don't connect with the brand, the other addressed the theory that clients need to meet the most senior agency officials to feel valued. I couldn't believe this still went on.

The second panel was full of agency types (I was in one hot seat) and, bizarrely, we seemed to speak as one. We all agreed that the value clients are looking for is under their noses, that we can all do more to offer ideas, and that we'd rather be concentrating our efforts on our client brands, but we're all in a mad dash for new business, and in the same breath trying to stop our clients flirting with other agencies.

I do commend my fellow panellists Tim Lindsay, the president of TBWA\UK, Will Orr, the chief executive of WCRS, and Stephen Woodford, the chairman and chief executive of DDB, for a collective stance against pitches and procurement, and for defending the efficacy of creativity to solve complex business problems.

Woodford argued brilliantly that the model, payment structure and method behind the relationship between clients and agencies is broken, through being based on time and input, rather than effectiveness and output. A wholesale change is unlikely, but his argument about increasing the investment in efficiency to justify big ideas was as sound as his statistics.

While differences between the two panels existed, there was a clear desire from the collective to find a value equation between agencies and clients. It was a bit like clients and agencies putting down the gloves and starting to think about our mutual enemy: "the crunch".

Certainly, the pressure will grow and will squeeze relationships and processes, models and people, and rock the business to its core. But perhaps this is the time to be brave rather than cautious. My feeling is that clients and agencies need to hang on to their inherent optimism and belief in brands to make a difference to consumer behaviour. We should, collectively, be uncompromising on laziness and waste, but we should in equal measure celebrate the bold idea.

In a gallant effort to slash cost, my sense is that marketers are leaning on procurement, cost control and process management, in many ways putting more formality into the relationship with their agencies. Yet the conference extolled a different virtue - that we need closer and more open relationships.

As the day developed, the disparate voices slowly came together. There is a collective desire to act against the forces of regulation and to rally around the big idea, and share in its success. Both big structural changes, but in these difficult times focusing on the end game, and sharing in the success of the big idea, may be our Obama moment.

- Mark Sinnock is a partner and the chief strategic officer at Fallon.