GLOBAL BRIEF: Should agencies sue clients? - John Tylee reports on the ramifications of DMB&B’s courtroom confrontation

Heat-of-the-moment threats of litigation by agencies against clients who dump them can usually be relied on to cool after a period of calm reflection.

Heat-of-the-moment threats of litigation by agencies against

clients who dump them can usually be relied on to cool after a period of

calm reflection.



So the decision of D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles in New York to sue its

former client, the computer manufacturer, Gateway, is rare. The size of

the agency’s lawsuit - dollars 9 million - makes it almost

unprecedented.



DMB&B’s tenure of Gateway’s dollars 90 million account was terminated

after a year and the business given to McCann-Erickson, an agency with

which Jeffrey Weitzen, Gateway’s new president, had previously

worked.



Not only is the scale of DMB&B’s claim astonishing - ’If provable, it

indicates a level of profitability on an account that’s unheard of,’ a

rival network chief claims - it also raises the possibility that

agencies are overcoming an historical aversion to going to court.



’It’s a reflection of greater litigiousness as business in general gets

more brutal and vicious,’ Philip Circus, advertising law consultant at

the Newspaper Society in the UK, says.



’The big problem for agencies suing at this level is that it isn’t only

expensive but also high profile and you could acquire a reputation as a

troublemaker.’



Bruce Mason, True North’s chairman, sees what’s happening as a

manifestation of fewer long-term relationships between agencies and

clients. ’I don’t expect a wave of lawsuits but I do expect a tougher

approach to business by both sides,’ he comments.



Roger Edwards, Grey’s UK chairman and a member of the network’s

worldwide board, says that, while a plethora of new legislation

emerging, particularly from Europe, is forcing agencies to be more aware

of the law, more courtroom battles between agencies and clients are

unlikely.



’Most clients are larger than agencies and have more financial and

management muscle to handle lawsuits,’ he points out. ’In the end, the

only people getting wealthy are the lawyers.’



But sometimes an agency’s pride outweighs more pragmatic

considerations.



Maurice Levy, chairman of the Paris-based Publicis network, says he has

sued clients as a last resort and would again.



’I was once fired by a client without cause, went to court and won,’ he

recalls. ’The client returned and remains with us to this day. I didn’t

do it for the money, only for the respect we deserve.’