Editorial: Time to rethink attitudes towards client conflict

A welcome by-product of all the consolidation that has taken place in the global communications industry and among its clients ought to be a more relaxed attitude to account conflict. Alas, it seems that old habits die hard.

McCann Erickson London has had to cut loose £12 million worth of Heinz business because of a "technical conflict" with Nestle's Maggi brand. No matter that McCann has no Maggi business in the UK and its only Nestle account is Nescafe. And last year, McCann's Interpublic parent forced its withdrawal from the £350 million Reckitt Benckiser pitch for fear of upsetting SC Johnson, a long-standing client of FCB, also part of the IPG family.

Meanwhile, Wieden & Kennedy has had to pull out of the Monster review because it has won CareerBuilder.com in the US. And it remains to be seen how the AA will react now Rapier, which handles DM for its car insurance services, has picked up the £50 million Lloyds TSB direct account.

Nobody wants to rock the boat. Yet it's becoming ever-more clear that the hardline stance by big clients and global communication groups is no longer sustainable. The problem is that the pace at which multinational companies are moving into new product areas is not matched by a rethink about what does and what does not constitute conflict.

Until recently, it has been argued that firm conflict policies are advantageous for both sides. Agencies are able to enjoy more stable client relationships, while clients get the necessary resource to underpin their global development.

Now, it seems, the balance has switched firmly in favour of clients which demand exclusivity across the globe and in an ever-widening range of categories. This may make sense in the US, where the size of the average account dwarfs anything elsewhere in the world. It makes no sense at all for network managers in small or emerging markets who make little or no money from an internationally aligned account, but are prevented from taking rival business.

A more common-sense and pragmatic approach to this issue is vital. Greater use of non-disclosure agreements as supplements to existing contracts would be a start. So would the restriction of exclusivity to certain named competitors. Asda milk ban underlines junk-food farce Asda is baffled over Ofcom rules which bar it from advertising whole milk during children's TV programming. It isn't the only one. Time was when schoolchildren were supplied milk daily to help keep them healthy. Now Ofcom seems to think it may make them fat. Yet another sign of rules drawn up in haste and another anomaly to be ironed out.

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