Close-Up: Live Issue - Do agencies lack respect for clients?

Mutual respect between the creative agency and the client should be the aim, Emma Barns reports.

Steve Harrison's Campaign Essay (19 August) has caused quite a stir.

In it, the Harrison Troughton Wunderman creative director asked why clients buy so much bad work.

It provoked an angry letter from Smart UK & Ireland's head of marketing, Sam Bridger, published last week. She says: "The article might as well have been about why all clients are idiots." Bridger does not think agencies are the gatekeepers of good work and disputes Harrison's claim that client churn means marketers often make decisions about work in sectors in which they have no experience.

The debate between the two raises a wider question of respect between agency and client. Do agencies take clients' views seriously or is "client" a dirty word?

Paul Hammersley, the chairman and chief executive of DDB London, is quite clear the agency is not and should not be dominant in the client/agency relationship. "At times, the agency can be better informed or have a better idea, but it is not the brand owner," he says. "Ultimately, the client's view is more important than the agency's."

Hammersley believes there is a danger that agencies will become arrogant about the role they are there to play and this is something Greg Nugent, Eurostar's head of marketing, agrees with. He says both client and agency can be guilty of not working hard enough to get what he calls the "Holy Grail of mutual respect". According to Nugent, this can be attained by making an effort to understand each other's very different worlds.

"Agencies don't know what we have to do to run a business," he says.

"Similarly, we do not understand agency problems in areas such as traffic." He suggests that if marketers spent two weeks at an agency and vice versa, everyone would understand each other better, resulting in greater respect.

Harrison, however, thinks both sides know each other pretty well. He says: "Agencies understand that many clients would not recognise a big idea if it bit them. And clients understand that many agency chiefs would sell them their grandmothers if it helped them make their numbers. The onus lies with the latter to rebuild trust."

There is also the argument that an agency spending time developing respect for a client who leaves after a year in the job has wasted that time.

And the issue of client churn is a very real problem.

Nugent argues that while a gungho new marketer can be frustrating for his or her agency, a new creative director can equally be guilty of coming in to an agency and making immediate changes. "Client and agency need to build a plan that works over time. The true test of respect is if they stick to it and evolve it," Nugent argues.

Martin Jones, the director of advertising at the AAR, says he sees less of agencies acting in a superior way than in the past. In fact, ironically, more prevalent is the lack of respect between partner agencies on a roster.

"Creative agencies often look down their noses at other disciplines such as direct marketing or public relations," Jones claims.

It seems that a happy client does not just need the mutual respect between his business and his agencies. It actually goes further and is an issue of respect across the entire communications board.

But Bridger has a warning for the agencies that have not grasped this.

"If there is no respect, then you need a new agency," she says.

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"Agencies do not give clients enough credit. They underestimate what it is like to run a business. They focus on one output, which is traditionally advertising, but this is not the only focus a marketing department has.

"Clients also underestimate agencies. It starts getting confused when the client tries to be the agency - to write the brief and dictate the creative show. We are both experts in certain things and we need to respect each other's grounds."


"I see less of agencies acting in a superior way. There are still some who act like the word 'client' is a swear word but others who understand that the client pays their wages.

"It is about striking the right balance - you do not want servility but you do not want arrogance. It is about mutual respect for what both bring to the party.

"It is not just respect for the client, though. Agencies also need respect for other disciplines. Agency superiority and inability to respect and work with other partner agencies often leads to a review."


"If your agency does not respect you, then you need a new agency.

"Agencies are not the only ones to be able to judge good work. Even if the marketing director is new in the job, it does not mean they do not know what they are doing. Marketing has one of the most transferable skill-sets, as I have found moving from telecoms to cars.

"And what about account directors who manage three clients in different markets? How can they know everything there is to know about each area? As a marketer, we are completely immersed in one brand."


"There is the danger of a disease of superiority among agencies. It is arrogant to the extreme to think agencies are the brand guardians. To think agencies are more important than the brand owner is to run into trouble.

"It is the agency's job to advise and consult and not to assume the client is incapable. That is not to say agencies should not challenge or push - you need an argument now and then. But that is different from assuming that your client is an idiot."