How to improve the retained agency model
A view from Helen Edwards

How to improve the retained agency model

The retained agency model is an archaic one, but there are ways to improve it.

Marketers often tell me they lose sleep over how to motivate their advertising agency. "How do we get the best out of them? How do we ensure we get the most talented people on our business?"

I am usually stumped for an intelligent response since it reverses the normal direction of flow of business angst, whereby those losing the sleep are the suppliers, eager to retain the goodwill of their hard-won customers. "How do we keep them coming back? How do we show them their business really matters to us?" 

But little about ad agency relationships is routine business. The "retained agency" norm is wildly out of kilter with the way things are done in virtually every other marketplace. Wouldn’t it be odd, for example, if you had a "restaurant of record" – Luigi’s, let’s say – to which you were committed to return for all your eating-out needs? And wouldn’t it lead to some dubious behaviour on both sides? 

The eponymous Luigi, knowing the contract was sewn up and hard to unpick, might be tempted to cut corners here and there, become slow in returning calls, ease you from the most favourable tables, feel less inclined to offer those complimentary after-dinner limoncellos. 

But even if his commitment to your utmost satisfaction were irreproachable, even if his culinary passion were intact and aflame, you might succumb to creeping doubts about whether he was doing everything right by you or whether, in some unseen way, back in that concealed kitchen, your custom was being taken for granted. 

Denied to you both would be the silent but expressive language of the free marketplace – where you both know that Carlo’s, over the road, does a pretty mean spaghetti alle vongole and that you are at liberty to venture there as the mood suits. Just as Luigi would be at liberty to fill all his tables one night and turn you away. It’s healthier all round.

We’re so accustomed to the retained agency system, and its arcane conventions, that we fail to see it for the strange and maladapted entity that it is. For each ad agency, just one client of a kind – a stricter door policy than Noah had for the ark. And for each client, a depressingly narrowed choice of potential agency due to the issue of "conflict". 

What an odd, advertising-specific hang-up that turns out to be. Try to imagine it applied in other industries – airlines, for example. It would be like Airbus declining to sell planes to British Airways because it would somehow seem disloyal to its prior customer, Emirates. 

Frankly, the advice I’d like to give to marketers doubting agency motivation would be to change the footing on which their agencies are procured. Better to put them on short-term contracts or projects, where the incentive – the motivation – is the normal one of trying to gain the next assignment.

That would not preclude long-term, unbroken relationships: it would just achieve them by a more productive means, built on satisfaction rather than inertia. The corollary, of course, is that your ad agencies would be free to work with your competitors – just as your research agencies, design houses and production companies already are.

Since "How about you single-handedly change an entrenched, century-old system" is not useful counsel in the face of a sleepless marketer, I do try to find something more constructive to say, based on my experience both inside and alongside the agency world. The trouble is, it is pretty obvious stuff. But, for what it is worth, I offer it here.

Ad agencies are populated by driven and talented people who are motivated by the prospect of doing great work. But that is an enormously difficult and exposing journey – one not to be embarked upon unless they believe it is also what the client wants.

And – strange but true – your agency might doubt your commitment to "great", even though you’d be crazy to want anything less from them. So you need to tell them.

Do this with a statement and a question: "We want you to produce the best advertising campaign in the world this year. What do we need to do to help you achieve it?" Be prepared to follow through: they won’t ask for anything crazy – it will be about clarity of briefs, leanness of approval lines, honesty on constraints, and time. 

You will have achieved two things. You will have left them in no doubt that what they most want is also the thing that you want. And you will have removed any convenient excuse they might have for not producing it – a realisation as terrifying as it is exhilarating. 

From this point on, it will be the agency awake at night – and pulsatingly alive through the long day – determined to deliver. You might not get the world’s best work, but you will certainly get theirs.

Don’t demotivate

Ten things not to say if you want to inspire your agency to great things:

1 Can’t it be more like the mood film?

2 Send us the presentation and we’ll circulate it to the wider team.

3 Our chief marketing officer can’t make the creative presentation but he’ll dial in from his team-building camp in Honduras.

4 Can you make it more inspiring?

5 We’d like to research it against a low-cost spot from our Hungarian agency.

6 Can we merge the two ideas?

7 Let’s workshop it in a team tissue meeting.

8 Can we see first thoughts next week? Don’t worry, we don’t need finished ideas, just directions.

9 Where’s the product-enjoyment shot?

10 What about crowdsourcing this brief?


Helen Edwards is the former PPA business columnist of the year and has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passion-brand  

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