Close-Up: Live Issue - Is client/creative harmony possible?

Most clients and their agencies still can't reach an accord on the value of creativity.

You have to admire the extraordinary lengths to which a few clients will go to build bonhomie in the cause of creativity. Even if it sometimes requires agency staffers to possess either a strong stomach or sturdy legs.

Sean Gogarty, the senior Unilever marketer, once took Ogilvy & Mather's Comfort fabric conditioner brand group sailing for two days in the Solent as the first step in evolving a new campaign. "You feel an odd sort of loyalty towards people you've seen being sick," Gogarty observed afterwards.

Berghaus, the outdoor clothing manufacturer, sent its new agency a box of its products and a map reference. The briefing took place up a mountain.

Despite these innovative efforts in team-bonding, differences in the way clients and agencies perceive the function of creativity and what it should achieve remain huge.

The chasm is highlighted by research carried out in advance of a new guide, Judging Creative Ideas, published last week by the IPA, ISBA and two other trade bodies.

At the heart of the conflict is whether advertising should be original or hard-working. Unsurprisingly, while almost every client questioned said the most important factor when judging creative work was how well it would accomplish its objectives, little more than half the agencies that took part agreed. Equally predictable was that no client believed mould-breaking creativity should be an end in itself.

Marilyn Baxter, the former chairman of the research company Hall & Partners, says: "Agencies tend to present their ideas in terms of them being mould-breaking concepts that are high risk and high reward. But most clients would rather settle for a lower risk and lower reward idea, just so long as it works."

More worrying is the climate of mistrust the research exposes. While seven out of ten agencies claimed to believe creative work should be "true to the brand", fewer than four in ten clients thought they really meant it.

The findings beg the question of whether the seemingly conflicting agendas of creative agencies and clients can ever be reconciled.

The answer seems to be that while the gap is being narrowed, it can never be closed. "Agencies will always try hoodwinking clients," Patrick Collister, the former O&M executive creative director, who wrote the guide, confesses. "They know when the work is good - but they also know when it isn't."

Indeed, Collister believes harmony is achievable only if every advertiser follows the lead of a few fashion brands and takes their advertising in-house.

Nevertheless, onlookers believe there are developments taking place that will bring agencies and clients into closer alignment, even if they will never be completely compatible bedfellows.

One is an agency world which, as it has grown more mature and businesslike, is being taken more into the confidence of clients. "The 'us and them' attitudes of ten years ago are less prevalent now," a leading marketing director says. "We're keen to expose our agencies to as much information as we can, which means we're much more likely to get creativity that can deliver."

Another is the growing globalisation of the industry. With all the major networks now part of large public companies, there is little taste for provoking creative confrontations with clients when you have shareholders and investors to keep sweet.

- See brandrepublic.com/magazines/campaign for further details of the report.

Got a view? E-mail us at campaign@haynet.com

CLIENT BODY CHIEF - Debbie Morrison, director of membership services, ISBA

"Can the chasm between creatives and clients ever be bridged? It's one of the biggest questions we face. As a one-time art student myself, I reckon I can see things from each side's point of view, but I don't have the answer.

"Our goal must be to narrow the gap, but the truth is that it's going to be very difficult. And it may well be that you need a little tension in the relationship if the best ideas are to emerge. But the tension shouldn't be so great as to affect the development of those ideas.

"I think it's a 'left brain/right brain' thing. Marketing people are focused on the more logical processes of building sales. They go to agencies for the magic."

INDUSTRY BODY CHIEF - Hamish Pringle, director-general, IPA

"I feel we're making progress. I get a sense that more agencies and clients feel that they are in the creative process together and that the guide will build on that momentum. Nevertheless, it's clear there is still a large gulf between the expectations of agencies and clients when it comes to creative work.

"A big problem is the ignorance among clients about what is going on in the ad marketplace. The situation won't improve until clients are more knowledgeable about what they are buying.

"What will help bring both parties together is the need to convince company boards that advertising is fundamental to building brand assets."

CREATIVE - Patrick Collister, creative trainer and guide author

"Interests will never be reconciled as long as agencies are obsessed with originality and clients don't give a toss about it.

"The divide has come about because of the way each party sees creativity. If an agency produces work that flops, it can move on. For a client it's personal because their career may be on the line.

"The gap has lessened to some extent. Not least because so many agencies are part of public companies and it's not in their interests to make shareholders restless. But the only way for these tensions to be fully resolved would be for clients to bring creative work in-house. While a few have done this, it's never going to be the norm."

CLIENT - Jeff Dodds, UK marketing director, Honda Cars

"The chasm is narrowing as more companies see their agencies becoming more businesslike. As a result, clients are showing greater trust in agencies and are more willing to invite them into the fold.

"The problem is that the agency not only has to deliver for the client but wants to produce advertising that will give it a spectacular showcase. These two things don't always align and I don't think the objectives of clients and agencies will ever be the same.

"Things will only improve if agencies understand what their clients are selling and share their values - and if agencies get a clear brief. If the client is unsure what he wants, how can he expect his agency to know?"

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