Close-Up: Live issue - How to avoid the three-year pitch syndrome

There's no little blue pill to invigorate your flagging agency-client relations. So what can you do? Mark Tungate reports.

We need to talk. Things aren't working out. It's not you - it's me." We've all been there: that moment in time when love, as Prefab Sprout once sang, breaks down.

But what happens when a client wants out of a relationship? Can an agency do anything to woo them back? And, more importantly, what can be done to avert the crisis in the first place?

Just as in marriage, the advertising industry has counsellors who profess to an ability to patch up a partnership that's fraying at the edges. One of them is Libby Child, the UK chief executive of Aprais, a global relationship management and measurement company. In other words, she's a highfalutin' marriage guidance counsellor.

Spot the warning signs

"Agencies are really poor at spotting the danger signs," she says. "They have naturally positive cultures and are staffed by people with high self-belief who need to stay upbeat. This is a huge strength in many ways, but it does not make them attuned and empathetic." Child says Aprais research reveals agencies consistently rate their own performance at least 10 per cent higher than their clients do. They either miss warning signs, minimise them, or think they have solved them with a good dinner, a few vox pops and a change of account team.

Mark Cadman, the chief executive of Euro RSCG London, disagrees that agencies can't detect strain. "You sense it," he says. "The work you're presenting is not getting bought; you're getting a lot of re-briefs. Another sign is when administration becomes disproportionately important. When clients start splitting hairs about things that never bothered them in the past, you're in trouble."

Robert Senior, a managing partner of Fallon, says that the most emphatic warning is "deafening silence". "If you're not getting any feedback at all, either positive or negative, more often than not the client has already made their decision," he says.

"Just as in any relationship, you should start worrying when your partner starts behaving differently: taking longer to approve work, stops returning calls, allowing senior management to wade in and change work previously agreed, calling creative meetings first thing on a Monday morning. Oh, and ostentatiously making notes with pens from rival agencies," an industry insider says.

Focus on service

So what's going on in the mind of a client at these moments? Greg Nugent, the head of marketing at Eurostar, has some useful insights. He says: "Agencies are a bit like children - they're not happy with what they've got, and they always want something they haven't. In other words, they're always on the lookout for the next sexy client. What I want, meanwhile, is evidence that they're spending a disproportionate amount of time working on my account."

Nugent says there's always a moment when the agency "takes its eye off the ball". "You go in and raise the issue, and, for a few weeks, the situation gets better - but then it drifts back."

Child warns against what she calls "the three-year pitch", as opposed to the seven-year itch. "There is a natural relationship life-cycle that makes an account vulnerable around three years after appointment. At this stage, the business will need a major strategic and creative overhaul."

So what steps can agencies take when they start suspecting an account is unhappy? "I think the key is to listen, and listen well," Cadman says. "It's absolutely unhelpful to start blaming and pointing fingers. When a relationship goes wrong, both parties are responsible. I can see the point of calling in a third party to arbitrate. Both sides could share the cost and the results may be worthwhile."

Make the client part of the team

Child suggests: "An objective, 360- degree review can buy an agency six months - and will show the client how their own behaviour affects the agency's ability to deliver, and so further a spirit of partnership."

Needless to say, prevention is better than cure. As Leo Tolstoy once wrote: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." So what are the shared characteristics of happy client-agency relationships?

Cadman has several theories. While at Lowe, he worked for five years on the Tesco account, which had been with the agency since 1989 (and has, of course, since followed Sir Frank Lowe to The Red Brick Road). "The first key is shared ambition. You need to understand exactly what the client is seeking to deliver. When I worked on the 'Dottie' campaign for Tesco, it didn't naturally put the price to the fore. But price was very important to them, and it remained a constant niggle until we developed a campaign that put price at the centre."

Cadman cites mutual respect and trust as important factors. But he stresses: "A lot of the angst around client relationships, as with marriages, concerns money. Human relationships can be directly affected by the financial situation. You need to get this right at the beginning. You shouldn't promise the earth during a pitch if you don't have the resources to service the business. At the same time, clients need to give you the means to do a good job."

Communicate clearly

Agency bosses underline the need to express minor doubts or misgivings, even while things are running smoothly. Sarah Gold, a managing partner at CHI & Partners, says: "The secret to a long-term client relationship is to have a series of short-term ones. Always find time regularly to review a client's business and communications with fresh eyes. In-depth knowledge combined with new observations is a potent mix for any client, however long you've been together. It's like any relationship: learn what works for your partner, but never forget to try new things occasionally. That way you keep the magic going."

Accept the need for change

On the other hand, there may be a good argument for change. The constant churn of accounts makes the industry dramatic and competitive, does it not? Wouldn't the creative work get banal and complacent if accounts stayed at agencies forever? Perhaps surprisingly, Kerry Glazer, the chief executive of the client-agency matchmaking service AAR, disagrees. "Agencies that have worked with a client for many years become valuable guardians of knowledge about the brand. And bearing in mind that marketing directors are changing jobs more frequently than ever before - sometimes within 14 months - an agency that knows a brand inside out is an incredibly useful resource."

Stable is not synonymous with stagnant. A stable client-agency relationship can create continuously original work, born out of deep brand understanding, as proved by the success of many long-term client-agency relationships.

Nugent is of the view that "if you have the same team working on an account for four years, I'm willing to bet that the work becomes stale. You need to inject new personalities into the mix and shake things up a bit." He stresses, though, that he is not anti long-term relationships. "Look at Lowe and Stella. But that relationship works because the brand knows how much the account means to Lowe."

Rapid marketing director churn can be a destabilising factor on an account. But Senior points out: "Marketing directors have to justify their decisions, so they can't just kick you out for change's sake. Maintaining the quality and effectiveness of your creative work is the best insurance policy."

THE ART OF KEEPING CLIENTS

'If you have the same team working on an account, I'm willing to bet that the work becomes stale. You need to inject new personalities into the mix and shake things up' - Greg Nugent, head of marketing, Eurostar

'You shouldn't promise the earth in a pitch if you don't have the resources to service the business. At the same time, clients need to give you the means to do a good job' - Mark Cadman, chief executive, Euro RSCG London

'The secret to a long-term relationship is to have a series of short-term ones. It's like any relationship: learn what works for your partner, but never forget to try new things occasionally' - Sarah Gold, managing partner, CHI & Partners

'Marketing directors have to justify their decisions, so they can't just kick you out for change's sake. Maintaining the quality and effectiveness of your creative work is the best insurance policy' - Robert Senior, managing partner, Fallon.

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