Opinion: Perspective - IPA's agency/client plan needs honesty to work

As you know, the bread and butter for Campaign's news pages is the churn of ad accounts. Whenever we get a sniff of one, we duly call the client, often to be told: "It's just an internal review. We're not changing agencies."

The "internal review" is then duly undertaken and, surprise, the account goes out to pitch. OK, not always ... but often. So why do agencies so often fare so badly when their clients conduct appraisals? The answer, according to new IPA guidelines, might have something to do with the fact that clients often only conduct these relationship reviews once they're already dissatisfied with some part of the service they're receiving from their agency. And agencies all too often leave relationship monitoring to their clients, rather than seeing them as a joint venture.

So the IPA is urging more mutual assessment of how an agency and a client work together and has produced some pointers on managing the process.

There are plenty of reasons (apart from straightforward business retention) why relationship management is important, the IPA says. For starters, clients now have so many agencies to manage that it's hard for them to develop deep relationships with them all; agencies need to be more proactive in their own management of the relationship. Also, marketing teams are getting smaller and in many cases more junior, so there's less experience of how to work best with agencies.

And given that more agencies are now remunerated, at least in part, on a measure of performance, surely it makes sense for agencies to be keenly aware of exactly how they're considered to be performing.

The danger of assessing the client/agency relationship, though, is that the process tries to impose quantifiable measures on systems, approaches and work that defy rigid evaluation. Big agencies can afford to pay for sophisticated evaluation from specialist consultancies versed in the sensitivities involved. But smaller agencies may find themselves at the mercy of a procurement-driven evaluation system that does not reflect the nature of their work.

So the IPA guide aims to provide a simple checklist to help smaller agencies align objectives, increase agency tenure and improve efficiency.

All very well and very good. Except that I wonder if the IPA isn't opening a can of invertebrates. Consider some of these questions suggested by the guide. Is the creative department "open-minded and constructive when discussing ideas/receiving feedback?", does it "create communication which can develop over time and across media?" and "present ideas which can be achieved within our budget?", and the killer, perhaps, does it "deliver on time?" Or what about financial management. Do the invoicing procedures "reflect good financial management?" and are the invoices "close to agency estimates?"

And some clients could find themselves in a sticky corner with their list of questions too. For example, agencies are asked whether "briefs are thorough, clear and inspiring", whether briefs are "final and represent a unified company view with which all stakeholders have agreed" and are briefs "realistic and achievable"? There are similarly thorny questions for media agencies (again, "does the invoice process reflect good financial management"?).

It's absolutely right that the IPA should offer guidance on these issues as part of its duty of care to members but also, crucially, as part of its drive to improve the professionalism of the industry. But I wonder how many agencies and clients could answer the questions positively without blushing.

In the spirit of forward-thinking and reflecting the way agencies are working across all media, online, offline, bugger-the-line, Campaign is launching a single creative awards scheme next year, The Big Awards (see story on page 1). There will be no better way to celebrate the best creativity in the country. Start polishing your work now.