Close-Up: What's the secret of a long 'marriage'?

No matter how well you get on with a client, it all boils down to the work in the end.

Perhaps the biggest surprise about the announcement from Bartle Bogle Hegarty that its 28-year marriage with Levi's had hit the rocks was that the union has lasted so long.

The AAR now reckons that the average life of a relationship between agency and client lasts between three and four years. That's little more than the blink of an eye compared with some marriages that stand the test of time.

Such as the one between Ogilvy & Mather and American Express that dates from 1961. Or BBDO's alliance with General Electric that stretches back to 1920.

Car-makers appear to be among the most loyal partners. Ford North America appointed JWT the same year as the Battle of Stalingrad, while Ford of Europe has been with O&M since 1975.

Volkswagen hired DDB in the US when "Mad Men" were for real, while Publicis has been Renault's network since 1963. BMW and Audi were founding clients of WCRS and BBH respectively and remain on those agencies' portfolios 28 years later.

And there's enough evidence to suggest that long marriages are not dying out. Procter & Gamble, Unilever and L'Oreal are noted for the longevity of their agency relationships. And Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO can boast a client retention record that includes Sainsbury's (31 years), The Economist (25 years), BT and Guinness (15 years), and Mars (ten years).

Nevertheless, the reasons why other relationships are increasingly fleeting aren't hard to fathom. A marketing director's average tenure of office is just three years and agencies report how client procurement specialists are trying to negotiate more project-based work rather than give agencies retained status.

Another factor is the demise of long-term personal relationships, such as the one between the CHI & Partners founding partner, Johnny Hornby, and the Carphone Warehouse boss Charles Dunstone, that ensure an account stays put.

Rarely now do accounts stick with individuals such as Brian Watson, the veteran creative who worked on the Daily Mail for more than 25 years. Or The Red Brick Road's Paul Weinberger, a long-time pivotal figure on the £45 million Tesco account.

"Choosing an agency is now a much more collaborative process involving a number of key stakeholders," Kerry Glazer, the AAR chief executive, says. "In almost every case, managing directors and chief executives have to ratify any decisions their marketing directors make."

When it comes to prolonging relationships, one ad industry leader suggests that more long-term contracts with clients would allow more to flourish.

Meanwhile, Glazer warns agencies not to delude themselves into believing that, just because they get on socially with clients, everything is all right. She tells the story of an agency chief who enjoyed a wine-fuelled karaoke night with one of her longest-standing clients only to find her agency on the brink of losing his account shortly afterwards because it couldn't crack the creative brief.

But ultimately, Mark Hunter, the Molson Coors UK chief executive and ISBA president, insists, long-term relationships arise out of the results they produce. "My business has to deliver and I expect my agencies to do the same," he says. "But changing agencies is time-consuming and not to be done lightly. That's why it's so important to get things right from the start."

AGENCY HEAD - Farah Ramzan Golant, chief executive, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO

"The key to long-term client relationships is constant reinvigoration. A lot of relationships go off the rails through too much talk and not enough action.

"You should constantly be looking at how you can do things differently, keep freshening the account teams and stay ahead of the game. No such relationship should ever feel like it's more than five years old.

"Although agencies will take on more project work, long-term relationships won't disappear. On the contrary, the competitive environment in which clients operate means they'll need them more than ever."

AGENCY HEAD - Mark Roalfe, chairman, Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R

"The relationship we've built up with Virgin Atlantic since 1994 is based on trust. There's a very strong rapport between us and the client marketing team and they treat us as a business partner. We know what they want and how to deliver their message with the right tone of voice.

"However, it also needs to be treated like a marriage. You have to keep working on it well beyond the honeymoon period.

"It's always tricky to decide when a relationship with a client has broken down and, with the market being so competitive, agencies will always try to keep a relationship going as long as possible."

CONSULTANT - David Wethey, chairman, Agency Assessments International

"If there's one common factor in client/agency break-ups, it's the fashion among client companies for bringing in people from other industries who often find agency relationships are too cosy for what they want to do.

"Also, clients lack the cultural integrity they once had. You used to know what to expect from them. Now, you don't.

"Yet, in a sense, agencies have brought this on themselves. They say they want long-term relationships with clients, then pitch them an idea that they claim offers instant nirvana.

"Agencies must aim to be brand guardians. It's only then that clients trust them and they become indispensible."

CLIENT - Phil Rumbol, outgoing marketing director, Cadbury

"Long-term relationships between agencies and clients are born out of mutual respect. With that comes honesty when either party feels free to speak out if they think things might be going off the rails.

"I very much believe in relationships of this kind but I think they are hard to build at the moment with the industry in such turmoil. Everybody is having to think differently and questioning what advertising actually is. Neither clients nor agencies have cracked it yet.

"I think things will settle down and it's important they do because when you change agencies, you can lose so much experience and expertise."

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