Fear and loathing in adland: why marketers should treat their agencies better

An anonymous agency CEO calls for marketers to treat their agency partners with more respect

Abuse: stop it
Abuse: stop it

Here’s a radical thought: better creative work builds brands. And better work is almost always the result of a strong agency-client relationship. Strong relationships are built on trust, and the cornerstone of trust is reciprocity – mutual sacrifice, if you like.

Extending this logic, trusting partnerships become a de facto fiscal imperative. This is not a joss-stick lighting, sandal-wearing flight of fancy – the right, creative advertising will have a positive impact on your bottom line. Strong partnerships are in everyone’s interest. Literally everyone.

So why oh why are so many agency-client relationships stuck in the paralysis of fear, unfiltered compliance and abuse?

Which imbecile invented the notion that the best way to inspire agencies to create better work is to pay less, pay late and demand more, while offering no respect in return?

I say abuse advisedly: one client I know was asked by her own employer to go on an anger management course after her systematic abuse of agency staff became unmanageable. Her behaviour, needless to say, did not improve, but she’s still in the same role – albeit working with a different agency.

Pitches are a story of their own. We all know certain individuals out there who have "favourite" agencies – why else would their business move so predictably every time they get a new job? But it doesn’t stop us scrambling to pitch for their accounts, in the eternal triumph of hope over experience.

For the past few months, the abuse has increasingly been of a financial nature, with too many examples to count: payment terms that have suddenly and arbitrarily been increased by some of the world’s biggest advertisers; Premier Foods asking agencies to pay it thousands of pounds to work on its business; a government communications-planning process that was so heinous, it even galvanised the IPA out of its usual torpor.

Which imbecile invented the notion that the best way to ­inspire agencies to create better work and help provide magic to build the client’s brand is to pay less, pay late and demand more, while offering no loyalty, respect or joy in return?

Sacrificing talent

There is one overriding and inevitable consequence of cutting fees and delaying payment: your agency will have to cut its costs, and those costs are its talent. More specifically, its most expensive – and usually its best – talent.

If you squeeze your agency on cost, it will end up so thin at a senior level that your account will be left purely to the devices of junior (for which read cheaper, less-talented) people. And your agency’s senior management will be so busy trying to find new business to replace the revenue you’ve taken away that they won’t have any time left for you.

Perhaps we are all in a downward spiral of fear, of financial and job loss. Perhaps this is why so many agencies now have inexperienced, spineless leaders, trained and steeped in the monochrome eloquence of "yes", terrified of the technicolour wonderment of "no". A real partner feels obliged, commercially, if not morally, to say no occasionally, to call time on folly, to induce a course correction.

Ask yourself: do you feel happy with the talent that your agency deploys on your business? Do you respect that talent? Does your agency have the balls to say no to you? If the answer to any of these questions is no, then you also need to ask what your part in creating this downward spiral has been.

If you are still reading this, admittedly, self-indulgent rant (the anonymity of which is oddly cathartic), you might agree that it is time for some adult supervision on both sides. Some altitude to reset the agency-client agenda and rewrite the moral contract – followed by the legal contract.

We all need to believe in the notion of partnership, not as a lazy and meaningless piece of business lexicon, but as a genuine force for good for all. We also need to remember that we all only live once, so let’s do the best we can.

Just a thought.