Who gives good service?

In part two of Campaign’s investigation of client service levels, Damian Lanigan questions agencies about their international networks. Below, clients comment on the standard of service they receive

In part two of Campaign’s investigation of client service levels, Damian Lanigan questions agencies about their international networks. Below, clients comment on the standard of service they receive

Does your bank overcharge you? Are you often unaware of what the charges

are for? Is it always trying to sell you a loan, when what you want is a

savings plan? Can you always get to speak to the person you want to talk

to? Is the service it offers value for money? Do you ever get the

feeling that it doesn’t listen to a single word you say? If you answered

‘yes’ to any of these questions, you have some idea of how many clients

feel about their advertising agencies.

The suggestion is that it is reasonable to compare agencies with the

most archetypal examples of how not to service clients - the clearing

banks. But surely this is overstating the case? Not necessarily. A soon-

to-be-published Incorporated Society of British Advertisers study shows

that less than a quarter of marketers in the fmcg sector claim to be

happy with the quality of the agency service they receive. It is

doubtful whether even the banks have as high a proportion of

dissatisfied customers.

Raoul Pinnell has considerable experience of different agencies and, as

the marketing director of NatWest, a vested interest in receiving the

best possible service. He certainly wouldn’t hold up agencies as models

for other service businesses. ‘Agencies are still far too assumptive -

far too prone to trace the problem back to ads,’ Pinnell says.

Such a view seems to offer a fundamental challenge to the way agencies

do business, and the issue requires urgent attention.

The driving force behind the need to reassess the situation is a change

in the competition. In particular, the traditional full-service agency

looks vulnerable - and not just from media specialists and creative

consultancies. The threat, according to many clients, is also coming

from management consultancies, which are increasingly interested in

clients’ marketing function as marketing becomes more central to the

whole process of doing business. Marketing strategy from Mc-Kinsey,

advertising execution through Creative Artists Agency, media by Zenith -

even agency people should be able to see the attraction of this mix.

Such a scenario would, perhaps, be unthinkable if agencies had stuck to

their avowed intention of serving clients’ business in the first place.

Too many feel that agencies are diverted from this simple task by false

gods. Dominic Owens, marketing services manager at Mercury

Communications, speaks for many: ‘Agencies concentrate on their creative

reputation, when the main concern should be their ability to produce

effective ads that talk to a target market in an appropriate way.’ One

wonders how many grey suits at Mc-Kinsey make the acquisition of yellow

pencils their main objective. Demonstrating the real commercial value of

advertising is crucial if agencies are to re-establish their primacy.

‘Effectiveness’ and ‘accountability’ are two words that are increasingly

prominent in the client’s vocabulary. But agencies don’t always seem to

rise to the challenge. The planning function, in particular, stands

accused of lacking rigour and giving the impression, in Pinnell’s words,

of being outdated and confused.

Should planners be involved in the process of selling the ad, or act

more as impartial marketing advisers to inform clients of how different

communications disciplines can be evaluated in terms of their

contribution to their broader marketing objectives? If agencies know the

answer to this question, they’re not telling their clients.

But if today’s shops can’t quantify the benefits, how can they justify

the costs? At present, it would appear that they can’t. Clients just

don’t think they offer value for money.

ISBA’s survey, conducted in conjunction with the Plymouth Business

School, will evaluate clients’ perceptions of agency performance. ISBA’s

director general, John Hooper, says that a narrow minority of

respondents - rather less than 50 per cent - claim to be happy with the

service they receive. The figures in some sectors are far worse.

Undoubtedly, some of this dissatisfaction lies with agencies’ inability

to offer advice on broader business issues and their unhealthy fixation

with awards. According to the study, a more fundamental failing is that

only 20 per cent of clients think agencies deliver value for money.

Hooper has no doubt that one cause of this is agencies’ tedious

unwillingness to be transparent about costs. ‘All agencies say they

believe in transparency, but they don’t. The process is still far too

mysterious,’ he says.

One source may have detected a reason for this continuing opacity: ‘The

production process is deeply undisciplined. Perhaps the ‘chaos

contingency’ is the hidden cost that’s built into every agency

production bill. If this is the case, then clients are becoming

increasingly impatient.’

Owens adds: ‘TV production is still too expensive and slow, and the

commission structure encourages biased advice.’

Finding accountable, transparent and fair systems of remuneration is an

obvious first step in establishing the value of an agency. However,

despite the recent debates on the issue, 80 per cent of clients still

feel they pay too much, the study claims.

Even in terms of the nuts and bolts of the service provision, agencies

can appear lackadaisical. Several clients report that agencies are

refusing to take telephone answering, message delivery and punctuality


Pinnell invites agencies to turn some market research techniques on

themselves: ‘How many agencies have gone as far as to commission, for

instance, a mystery shopper survey? Even if they have, is the data

really used to change the process?’

As advertising director of the COI, Peter Buchanan works with 37

agencies, 20 to 25 of which are active on the COI’s behalf at any one

time. He doubts whether agencies are as self-questioning as they should

be: ‘They would definitely benefit from more often making cool

appraisals of their own failings.’

There is a great deal of consensus within the client community as to how

a lot of these problems could be addressed. Ironically, it mostly comes

down to communication. Clients want agencies to make pre-emptive strikes

on service- quality issues.

Buchanan says that only a minority of agencies initiate their own

reviews, rather than simply waiting for them to happen. And Hooper

points out that such reticence can be seen across all agency activity.

But agencies can be become initiators, rather than responders. Clients

are crying out for them to overcome their reticence. The entire ethos of

the advertising industry is founded on a belief that businesses must

listen to the demands and concerns of their customers, and respond to

them. Now clients are inviting agencies to do the same. The clearing

banks have been doing it for years - maybe it is time for agencies to

start catching up.

Did they pass the test?

Many top agencies already conduct ‘mystery shopper’ surveys to evaluate

their service delivery.

In Campaign’s version of this retail industry challenge, shops were rung

up over a three-week period and assessed on their basic standards of


What did we conclude? It was disappointing that none of the agencies

managed to consistently beat the ‘three rings’ test. What’s more, once

past the switchboard, the call would frequently go unanswered for what

seemed like an age.

The trend towards voice-mail can also leave agencies seeming like the

Marie-Celeste. If a client rang these ones up at lunchtime, they might

think they were in a BA ‘world offers’ ad.

Most agencies were good at the ‘multinational test’ where Campaign

quizzed switchboards - the client’s first point of contact with an

agency. Just the occasional oddity provoked surprise here, such as

Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s uncertainty about whether or not it had an office

in Jakarta.

Finding foreign language speakers was more of a problem. Even if there

was a degree of confidence about their existence, there was no easy way

to track them down. The fact that this spoof client was not connected

even once in more than a dozen separate attempts does not inspire



1: The ‘three rings’ test. Average rings before the phone was answered

over three days at 8am, 1.30pm and 7pm

2: The multinational test for agency switchboards; (a) Have you got an

office in Helsinki?; (b) Have you got an office in Jakarta?

3: ‘Hello, I’m a client of yours. Can you find me someone who; (a)

speaks German?’; (b) speaks Japanese’?

Ammirati Puris Lintas

1: 8am Three

1.30pm Seven

7pm Two

2: (a) Helsinki: ‘I’ll put you through to someone.’ (Question

repeated, number given)

(b) Jakarta: (As above)

3: (a) ‘God, who would know that?’

(b) ‘People who speak Japanese... I don’t know anyone. Let’s try


‘Hello, message desk’

‘Do you speak Japanese?’

‘No. Who is this?’

Bartle Bogle Hegarty

1: 8am Three

1.30pm Eight

7pm Two

2:ÿ20 (a) Helsinki: ‘No, I’m sorry’

(b) Jakarta: ‘Er, hold on a second’(muffled conference).

‘No, we don’t’

3: (a) ‘I know people do - I mean, Jurg is German’

‘Can you put me through, please’

(Put through to extension. Jurg wasn’t there)

(b) ‘Hold on a second,’ (muffled conference). ‘Yes. Lorette Nettar.

She speaks Japanese. I’ll put you through’ (Answerphone)


1: 8am Five

1.30pm Nine

7pm Four

2: (a) Helsinki: ‘Yes, we do. Would you like the number?’

(b) Jakarta: ‘Er, oh crikey, I’m sure we have. It’s in Indonesia,

isn’t it?’

‘Yes, I think so’

‘My geography is better than I thought. Here’s the number’

3: (a) and (b) ‘We do have people, but it’s not a requirement’

‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you mean’

‘They might have been transferred from other offices or something,

but it’s not a requirement’

‘Can I speak to someone who speaks German?’

‘I don’t know, I’d have to go through them all’


1: 8am Four

1.30pm Six

7pm Four

2: (a) Helsinki: ‘Yes. Would you like the number?’

(b) Jakarta: ‘Yep. Hold on,’ (ten-second silence).

‘I’m looking for it for you. Is that Jakarta in the Phillipines?’

‘Indonesia, but there might be one in the Phillipines’

‘Oh. I’m looking through the catalogue. Here it is’

3: (a) and( b) (Put through to personnel)

‘I’d like to speak to someone who speaks Japanese. Could you put me

through to someone please?’

‘Not at this moment, no’ ‘How about German?’

‘I haven’t got time to sit here on the phone at the moment, I’m


Howell Henry

1: 8am Seven

1.30pm Two

7pm Three

2: (a) Helsinki: ‘No’

(b) Jakarta: ‘No, I’m sorry’

3: (a) and (b) ‘I just don’t know who to ask’

J.Walter Thompson

1: 8am Five

1.30pm Eight

7pm Three to reach answerphone

2: (a) Helsinki: ‘Where is that?’


‘Just testing! Do you want the number?’

(b) Jakarta: ‘Yes, we do. Here’s the number’

3: (a) and (b)‘Oooh, gosh, I don’t know. Let me put you through to

personnel’ (Answerphone)

Lowe Howard-Spink

1: 8am Five

1.30pm Four

7pm Three

2: (a) Helsinki: ‘No, we just have a London office’

(b) Jakarta: ‘Where is that?’


‘I don’t think we do, let me check. Well, we’ve got one in India,

but not Indonesia’

3: (a) (Gales of laughter) ‘I don’t think we have, hold on a minute...

is it new business?’

‘Not really, no’

‘What’s it regarding?’

‘I just need to speak to someone who speaks Japanese’

‘I’ll put you through to someone.’ (Put through to a secretary)

‘I really don’t know, I’m sorry’

Ogilvy and Mather

1: 8am Two

1.30pm Three

7pm Eight to reach security

2: (a) Helsinki: ‘Yes, I think so. Yes, here’s the number’

(b) Jakarta: ‘One moment please. Here’s the number’

3: (a) and (b) ‘Er, ooo...’ (Silence for 20 seconds, then put through

to someone). ‘It’s a difficult one, all that’s held in a different

office. Maybe the WCS might know. Let me put you through’ (Phone

rang 11 times) ‘Oh, God, I don’t know. Sian might know. I’ll put you

through’ (Sian not there)


1: 8am Two

1.30pm Three

7pm Four

2: (a) Helsinki: ‘Yes, here’s the number’

(b) Jakarta: ‘Yes, we do. Here’s the number’

3: (a) German: ‘Oh dear, is there anyone who speaks German? I’ll just

look. Hold on, we don’t. All four fluent speakers have left!’

(laughter) ‘There might be someone in Publicis Focus’

‘What do they do?’

‘The same as us really. Let’s see - here’s a name’

(b) Japanese: ‘No. No Japanese speakers here’


1: 8am Two

1.30pm Two

7pm Six

2: (a) Helsinki: ‘I’m sure we have.Yes, here’s the number’

(b) Jakarta: ‘What country is that in? I’m not entirely sure. Here

we are. Indonesia. Here’s your number’

3: (a) and (b) (Put through to personnel)

‘We might have people who speak those languages - I couldn’t tell

you off-hand. I’d have to go through the lists’

‘Oh, does that mean I can’t speak to someone now?’

‘No, I’m sorry, I’d have to go through the lists’