A view from Claire Beale

Editor's Perspective: Saying 'no' is a lesson ad chiefs have to learn

I give you two quotes. Feel free to dismiss the first on legacy grounds. The evidence supporting the second approach, though, is harder to dispute.

The subject is leadership. First up, Tony Blair. "The art of leadership is saying no, not yes. It's very easy to say yes." And Steve Jobs: "It comes from saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don't get on the wrong track or try to do too much."

It is no exaggeration to say that every conversation I'm having lately with agencies touches on the immense frustrations they are feeling towards clients who just keep asking for more for less.

The chief executive of one of the very best agencies in London has had enough and is on a mission (he says) to tell every client he meets how they're bringing the industry to its knees.

Another big important agency boss told me of a stand-up row he's recently had with one of his biggest clients over fee negotiations. It almost came to blows and dialogue has broken down. The agency boss is, as yet, unrepentant. We wait to see whether the client - faced now with either finding a compromise or sacking a great agency - feels the same.

And there's the big, big media agency chief who's at breaking point with his big, big client and tells me not to be surprised if he simply walks away from the account.

It all makes me feel like punching the air. It's time to say no. No more. Because less money coming in from clients will mean poorer work and so a further eradication of the status of the industry. If agencies value what they do (and if they don't, why should anyone else?) then they should fully be prepared to say no and walk away.

The more agencies allow what they do to be devalued, the further the industry gets from ever being able to claw its way back to centre stage and a respectable income. And not only will agencies find it impossible to drive fees back up (at least without finding entirely new things to charge for) but the downward spiral will be perpetuated as the best people become demoralised and frustrated and quit the industry altogether.

Of course, all this fighting talk from agencies may be no more than posturing, letting off steam and finding my shoulder a convenient resting place before they gather strength to keep carrying on taking the kicks, just as before. I hope not. I particularly hope not because one of the UK's biggest advertisers told me recently that they were about to unleash a brutal remuneration scheme that will no doubt screw agencies even harder ... and other clients will be preparing to follow suit.

I know many agencies have little flexibility when it comes to firing clients, particularly if they are network or group clients. And I know that the industry is predicated on growth, not principle. But it's time the industry's best leaders learnt the art of saying "no".

claire.beale@haymarket.com

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