Close-Up: Live issue - Are connections valued more than credentials?

Following AMV's link-up with Birds Eye, are healthy relationships prized above all else in today's adland, Noel Bussey asks.

That old business cliche, that it's not what you know, but who you know, must have sprung to mind at Bartle Bogle Hegarty last week.

Martin Glenn, the Birds Eye chief executive, had just awarded BBH's £12 million portion of his advertising business to Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, an agency that Glenn is more than a little familiar with - he worked with AMV for years during his time as a marketer, and later the president, of PepsiCo.

Such a turn of events is nothing new in adland, and many agencies have both reaped the rewards of years of diligence and suffered at the hands of the industry's fickle winds of change.

In the long term, such wins and losses tend to even out. But that doesn't stop the cries of "favouritism", "shoo-in", "foregone conclusion" and even "waste of money" if the account has gone out to pitch - as it did with Birds Eye.

Glenn stands by his decision by saying that he thought BBH was "struggling to cope with the company's change in strategy", so he needed to look elsewhere. However, he strongly maintains that the pitch process was definitely "a level playing field".

"I didn't want to put it out to a wholesale pitch, but, because I know AMV, I couldn't ignore the experience I've had with them," he says. "BBH definitely had a chance, and my team and I decided that if it was even close to a draw, then BBH would have retained the business."

Cilla Snowball, the Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO chairman, also believes that a successful and experienced marketer such as Glenn would not let a previous relationship sway his judgment when it comes to moving his account.

"To suggest that Martin made his decision based on mates is to do him a serious disservice. He is an extremely talented marketer who is scrupulously fair, sets the bar high for his agencies and expects real results - in both creativity and effectiveness," she says.

It is also worth bearing in mind that Birds Eye is now owned by Permira, a private equity company which will be looking for Glenn to increase the company's sales rapidly in a sector that has been performing poorly.

So, Glenn's brief was to look for an agency that can produce big, populist advertising that sells product - which he knows AMV can do through his time with it at the PepsiCo-owned Walkers.

Martin Jones, the director of advertising at the AAR, also points out that most marketing directors, despite their lofty positions, will not have the power to "choose their mates" anyway, because the advertising business has become much more affected by the procurement process and cost-saving exercises.

He also advises agencies against only forging a relationship solely with top brass. "Smart agencies that keep long-term relationships make contacts at all levels of their clients' business, and not just with one man at the top," Jones says.

This approach has further advantages, since many marketing managers from those teams may well head off to other companies in bigger roles and look for an agency of their own in the future.

Other benefits of cultivating a long-lasting relationship with clients include future business from organic growth or acquisitions, the growth of your own agency's brand from recognition of great work and effectiveness and word-of-mouth recommendations.

Of course, this sort of relationship is symbiotic, so it's not just the agency that benefits.

Glenn says: "Clients benefit, too, because brand managers rotate quickly, but the agency has a long-standing embedded knowledge of your business and your brand. This stability also means that my marketers are concentrating on my business and don't have one eye on their next agency."

James Murphy, the outgoing chief executive of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, adds: "People who have worked on an account for a long time not only know the client's business inside out, but also that of their competition, which is invaluable in a client's eyes."

However, Snowball says these relationships don't just happen overnight, and to get the pay-off, you have to put the work in.

"In a long-term relationship, things don't generally get easier - you have to keep proving yourself day in, day out, or you will, more often than not, find yourself sacked or in the dreaded situation of having to repitch for your business."

As the Birds Eye result shows, cultivating a good relationship and understanding of your client can sometimes be advantageous for getting on to pitches - but it appears that the changing agency landscape is leading to less business just being handed over on the basis of past relationships, and that agencies will still have to work for their wins.

Glenn adds: "Relationships only work if there is understanding from both sides. Not enough clients look at themselves when they come up against a problem - instead, they throw a hissy fit. This doesn't help anybody. With this attitude, I'm not surprised more relationships don't work."

- Feature, page 20.