PERSPECTIVE: Agencies bemoan clients but can't see own faults

There's a blinder of a letter from Rupert Howell on the opposite page. Who, in all honesty, could disagree with him? Isn't the client who messes an agency around, records splendid financial results, cuts the fee and still can't be bothered to sack an agency in person the rudest, crassest, most impersonal moron on the planet? Such crashing insensitivity is way up there with the Accident Group's now legendary text message to staff. Call this number, it said, and a voicemail message will tell you whether or not you have a job any more.

The letter also invites another reaction. Has Howell's ego got too big for this business? Has his maverick HHCL charm turned to staged McCann smarm? Is he wise to risk a response detailing his personal or corporate failings? Would he dare take such a stand with a bigger client? And isn't Greene King's entire business only worth a fiver anyway?

The sad truth is that agencies are genetically incapable of taking a collective stand on anything. This is one of the reasons that there is nothing unusual about clients sacking agencies without notice or through the pages of the trade press. If you are ambitious enough to be in ultimate control of millions of pounds, the chances are you will find it pretty easy to ride roughshod over those people who are hired to spend that money for you.

On impulse, and intent on proving this theory, I surveyed ten senior contacts at agencies of vastly varying size and in different countries. I wanted to know, I said, the single worst thing a client had every done to them. And I also wanted to know the single worst thing they had ever done to a client. The first bit proved easy. My keyboard positively levitated with all of the responses.

On 22 December one year, an agency boss received a Christmas card from a client looking forward to the next ten years of the relationship between the two companies. On 4 January, there was a phone call from the same man informing the agency he was reviewing the business.

Another recalled being summoned to a 7.30am meeting in Cheltenham, two-and-a-half hours from where he lived. When he got there, at the appointed hour, he was instructed to taste new margarine variants straight from a spoon. Lots talked about being made to taste cat food or smell armpits.

One took a client to court for non-payment of a bill of around £70,000.

On settling on a little under half the total, the client said to the agency: "Before we pay you, we want you to sign a confidentiality agreement because we don't want people to know how badly we treated you." Another recalled the client who regularly called up female account handlers saying "don't be such a f-ing c**t".

So there you have it. Most of these activities are free and require no special skills, lawyers or equipment.

The response to the second part of the survey was frankly disappointing.

A few admitted entering sham ads into award schemes, or work without client approval. One media agency boss recalled inputting false spend data into the system before the TV station auditors came around and changing it back the day after they'd gone. But the rest ignored the brief.

I have a feeling that the worst thing that agencies do is leak stories of reviews to the trade press. So the story has come full circle. And, with Campaign's hungry news pages in mind, long may that continue. Rooney Anand, the managing director at Greene King, we await your letter next week.