LIVE ISSUE/CLIENT-AGENCY RELATIONSHIPS: It’s time to give clients the relationship they want - Agencies often forget that a client relationship takes effort, Claire Cozens finds

Agencies bring the break-up of client relationships on themselves.

Agencies bring the break-up of client relationships on


Agency/client splits are usually made on a personal rather than a

strategic basis. And one in ten agency/client relationships begin to

break down after just 18 months. These are just some of the ’shock’

findings of a new survey commissioned by the Results Business

Consultancy and published in Campaign last week.

These findings will surprise no-one who has worked in the industry, but

reflect the continuing - some would say growing - lack of trust between

agencies and clients.

It seems that little progress has been made since the Incorporated

Society of British Advertisers and the Institute of Practitioners in

Advertising drew up their pitching charter in 1995.

The charter stated that there should be no more than three agencies on a

shortlist, that clients should contribute to pitch costs, and that

pitches should only be called when really necessary. Four years on, it

seems that the same recommendations are being made all over again.

Many in the industry feel, however, that there is some cause for


While clients that agree to pay pitch fees are still very much in the

minority (only nine of the 45 clients surveyed volunteered to meet pitch

costs), the number requesting a full competitive creative pitch is


Of the 45 clients surveyed, 17 said they had appointed an agency without

a creative pitch. According to Martin Jones, managing director of the

AAR, only around half the clients who go through his company now ask

agencies to produce creative work.

’In my experience, clients rarely pay pitch fees,’ he says. ’If they

don’t want to pay them I would encourage them to judge on strategy and

personal chemistry and not to ask the agencies to produce creative


Jones believes that the balance of power between agencies and clients is

changing. In the 80s, he says, advertising was the ’in’ thing and

agencies were the dominant partner in the relationship. Then, in the

90s, recession hit and clients had it their way for a while.

Now, the relationship is more or less equal.

Respect and trust, most people agree, are the most important ingredients

of the successful agency/client relationship.

Like any good marriage, the relationship needs to be worked at, and

doing so is usually financially beneficial for both parties.

The Results Business Consultancy’s recommendation that the industry use

a Relate-style counselling service to help repair foundering

relationships may be a little off-the-wall, but it could be a good way

of sorting out problems that might otherwise lead to an agency/client


Sholto Douglas-Home, director of marketing and communications at the

Millenium Commission and a former BT marketing director, believes the

idea could work, but only under some circumstances: ’Good clients

appreciate the value of long-term relationships and of doing all you can

to stick with your agency through thick and thin,’ he says. ’If there is

a personality clash I think it is much better to talk to the agency

about it and get them to take that person off the team. If there is a

strategic problem, an independent strategic consultant can be a subtle

way of dealing with it.’

Variations on that theme already exist. Leagas Delaney, which famously

split with The Guardian last year, commissions an independent company to

analyse its performance client-by-client every year.

’We find it incredibly helpful,’ Bruce Haines, chief executive of the

agency says. ’The account director follows up with a meeting and an

action plan to address any problems.’ But Haines concedes that the

system proved no help in the case of The Guardian. The client had, he

says, given them a very favourable report only nine months earlier.

One of the major conclusions drawn by the Results Business Consultancy

is that agencies spend too much time chasing new business at the expense

of looking after their existing clients.

One agency that concurs with this view is St Luke’s, which stopped

pitching for a period last year to concentrate on its relationships with

new clients.

’The traditional agency way of dealing with pitches is to get people to

start work on the brief with no thought given to the accounts they are

already working on,’ Juliette Soskice, new-business manager at St

Luke’s, says. ’Here, we have to have everyone’s agreement before we can

pitch for any new business.’

Others argue that there is much more to the new-business win than just

the financial gain.

As the AAR’s Jones says: ’The report fails to recognise the value of new

business to an agency other than its immediate financial value. Ask

anybody who has worked in advertising and they will tell you just how

much of a morale-booster winning new business can be.’


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