During my time at J. Walter Thompson I worked on the TSB account
when the agency also had NatWest. I remember being challenged by
conscientious advertising people in other agencies (who really cared
about the rules of client conflict) as to how this could be justified.
The answer was well rehearsed - the TSB was only a savings bank started
by some shepherds on a Scottish mountain, and NatWest was a trading
bank, with current accounts and business customers. We got away with
this for years - long after the TSB launched its current account and
opened accounts for businesses.
The standard joke on this matter is ’When is a conflict not a
conflict?’, the answer being ’when it’s a specialism’. In the fashion
sector, for example, where one single agency working on competing
products routinely carries out the selling of clothing to an absurdly
complicated audience of 16- to 20-year-old males, clients have a choice.
Do they plump for the agency that knows and understands the market, or
do they go left-field and teach an inexperienced agency why customers
will get a warmer feeling in these jeans than those combat trousers.
A quick straw poll of some of our clients reveals some
Not one of them believes in the principle of Chinese walls - all are
aware that if they appoint an agency, the research, experiences and
understanding gleaned will be regenerated for the benefit of future
Also, clients actually like the idea of an agency that has been through
the experience before - at someone else’s expense.
What’s more, an agency search conducted solely on the basis of client
conflict and agency availability would probably throw up a very strange
and limited choice. And as we all know, client lists are never exactly
as they seem. Agencies tend to keep client names on their lists even if
the advertiser has really moved on - so what may appear to be a conflict
often isn’t at all.
And isn’t it funny that there’s so much concern about above-the-line
advertising when publishers print competing magazines, direct marketers
have much more leeway over conflicts, and specialist marketers are free
It almost seems as if people are looking for problems - and when you do,
they’re not hard to find. Here’s one example: a media agency has two
beer clients and they both want the centre-break spot in the Champions’
League game tonight - which one gets it?
And here’s another: a creative agency handles an upmarket car account,
and John Prescott storms in and says he wants a campaign to get all
toffs off the road. How does the agency’s corporate conscience cope with
The more relaxed view that Procter & Gamble is now taking to this kind
of situation is being reflected in attitudes elsewhere. Ultimately
conflict can, and will, only be resolved by appealing to the
sensibilities and sensitivities of the client. You’ll just have to ask
Andrew Melsom is managing director of Agency Insight.