Opinion: Perspective - The depressingly brutal side of a people business

What timing. Our feature this week celebrates the importance of long-standing, trusting and mutually nourishing client/agent relationships: in a world of global advertising deals, holding company domination and procurement rule, how reassuring that people still matter.

Then two important advertising relationships were brutally and unceremoniously severed this week and the alternative reality became depressingly apparent.

First, and biggest, Kellogg dumped JWT on Tuesday. Note the word dumped. It's used not (entirely) as a bit of journalistic mugging, but as an expression of the rather inelegant manner in which a relationship stretching back to 1938 was terminated.

We knew Kellogg was tidying up its roster - a bit of housekeeping that would see agencies wiped from its 30-strong team of agency suppliers. This rationalisation process was dubbed "Project Silver" inside Kellogg, which hints perhaps at the middling cost-savings that presumably played an important part in the process. As we discovered on Tuesday, the result was rather more radical than anticipated. JWT has lost all of its Kellogg business outside of Asia-Pacific and Leo Burnett has emerged triumphant.

So what should we make of this shock decision? That JWT has not been doing a good job for Kellogg? That Leo Burnett is a superior network? Don't be silly. JWT has been doing solid, brand-building advertising for Kellogg since before Sir Martin was born.

Quite who created some of Kellogg's greatest brand icons such as Tony the Tiger for Frosties and the Snap, Crackle and Pop boys for Rice Crispies is somewhat lost in the mists of time (both JWT and Burnett claim some provenance). But there's no question that in the UK, JWT has helped build Special K into the nation's number two cereal and Crunchy Nut into the fourth biggest. And though the work rarely (if ever) tickled creative sensibilities, it's clearly done the job asked of it.

It seems naive to talk of fairness in decisions such as Kellogg, and WPP has done its share of encouraging clients to dump on other networks. And really, does history count for much in these fast-paced, financially depressed times? Well, as far as I can tell, JWT has done nothing "wrong" on the Kellogg business, so in that sense the decision to strip the account from the network seems "unfair".

And, yes, history should count for something. If it doesn't, then the implication is that advertising has become a commoditised business where agencies are indistinguishable on service and creative output and where people and personal relationships are irrelevant. Who wants to work in a business like that?

On a different scale, Tim Lindsay's brutal ejection from TBWA this week also did advertising's reputation no favours. It's true that TBWA has faltered since he was appointed in 2007. There's no doubt that TBWA has lost its flame in London. It's an also-ran, a pale shadow of its former self. But TBWA was all those things (thanks to a series of poor management decisions and talent-defections) before Lindsay arrived. Then the whole embarrassing failure to buy Beattie McGuinness Bungay - a global management initiative - gave the group's reputation another kicking.

So how responsible is Lindsay for the current state of the company? And has he actually done enough wrong to deserve the shocking manner of his departure (turfed out on Tuesday, not allowed to return to the building, apparently)? Unless I'm missing something very significant and serious, I can't see it.

I suspect Lindsay fell out of love with TBWA management over the BMB affair. But he's remained fiercely loyal to the UK company and its people. As those staff - who've been dragged through so much turmoil over the past few years, including the Media Arts farrago - now contemplate the arrival of shock-choice Robert Harwood-Matthews, it's hard to imagine they are feeling very comforted by this latest traumatic upheaval.


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