EDITORIAL: Why agencies and clients grow apart

Marriage breakdowns between agencies and clients happen for much the same reasons as between husbands and wives. Sometimes the hopes are shattered in a bust-up and a sudden mutual recognition that it's all been a big mistake. More often, though, divorce is due not to a single row but a growing realisation that neither partner can provide the comfort or fulfilment that the other desires.

New research by one of advertising's most active marriage brokers, the Haystack Group, shows how closely the failure of client and agency relationships mirrors society at large. And Haystack's analysis suggests that, in a world where technological change and media fragmentation are happening at breakneck speed, the chasm between each side is growing wider and deeper.

A communications breakdown has led agencies to think their most important role is to understand a client's business and help grow it. But many clients believe that's best left to marketing and brand consultancies, not to their agencies who don't understand where their business is going. Marketing directors would like agencies to provide more of the resource - including direct marketing and sales promotion - that they don't have in-house. Many accuse their agencies of failing to do this.

Above all, clients bridle at agencies' in-built conservatism and inflexibility. If clients can change their structures and launch new offerings to meet changing customer demands within months, why can't agencies, they ask. The answer is that the stakes are much higher for agencies. An advertiser who loses 5 per cent of his customers is unlikely to see his profits halved. But such a fate could easily befall an agency. Moreover, clients are still demanding more while insisting on paying less. The fact that few marketing directors remain in place longer than two years doesn't help in establishing a rapport.

Without more effective communication between agencies and clients about what they expect from each other the future looks bleak.