Opinion: Perspective - Clients won't pay a premium for comms advice

It's four years since Chris Ingram rang me to tell me he was starting over again with high ambitions to launch an upstream client consultancy that integrated advertising, media and marketing expertise with business nous.

Now after four years of advising clients, Ingram is "evaluating strategic options" for itself. Those options, Ingram hopes, include the sale or merger of the business. And because Ingram was going for a large-scale business and had an infrastructure and cost-base to suit, the company has already been forced to cut back. Chris Ingram himself is stepping back from the company to assume more of a non-exec role and several of the management team have left this week.

So what went wrong? Well, the company has always been a little coy about its clients and the work that it does ... not surprising perhaps when you're working at a senior level on business strategy. But the intangibility makes it hard for people like me to judge whether Ingram was delivering on its promise.

Still, knowing Chris Ingram and the reputation of his team, I'd wager that they have been doing some pretty good work for some pretty blue-chip clients. I'd be surprised if Ingram's company was faltering because of the quality of its product.

Funnily enough, though, I suspect quality is, actually, the issue. Or at least quality with a proper price tag attached. Has Ingram been plying its upstream trade in a market that is really pretty happy with mid-stream or even down-stream?

Do clients want to pay a decent price for a good service that is not essential to today's or tomorrow's bottom line, but could improve profits over the medium to long term? Or would they rather pay a smaller price for an OK service that sees them through the short-term? I can't help thinking that for the majority of clients, the latter is true when it comes to communications advice, and that's one of the fundamental problems facing the ad industry. Ingram was pitching its business at the client boardroom, yet how valued is anything to do with advertising and marketing in most company boardrooms? Less than 10 per cent of FTSE top 100 companies have a board-level marketer.

So marketers themselves do not necessarily have stature and respect at the highest levels within their own companies. Marketers are notoriously flighty, too, moving jobs quickly, but even if they were in their jobs for the long haul, how many of them would be able, or prepared, to pay a premium to invest in strategic advice on the future of their marketing and business activities? This, I think, is the nub of the problem. Yes, some smart companies see strategic brand-building advice as an investment, but there are not enough of those sorts of clients. Traditional ad agencies have spent the past few years trying to claw their way back up the client food chain, but it's increasingly hard to see how agencies will regain that status.

How many agencies (media, creative, DM, digital) have strong relationships with their clients' marketing directors (as opposed to marketing managers or brand managers)? Certainly not all. And how many agencies have a good working relationship with their clients' chief executives? A few, particularly if that client is a small, entrepreneurial business, but really agencies with those sorts of positions of influence are hard to find.

Interestingly, the current shift to digital should offer agencies an opportunity to re-engage at boardroom level. As the internet is fundamentally affecting the way many companies' business are developing, there is a hunger for knowledge about digital opportunities amongst senior client management.

Adland's understanding of the digital world and how to build interactive customer relationships is a new chance to get round the top table. Though how many agencies recognise the opportunity and really have the depth of digital knowledge and conviction to make the most of it?