One is a relationship, two is a conflict, three is experience and
four is specialisation. These are the standard joke phrases that
illustrate the biggest headache facing advertising agencies: how to
manage client conflict.
This week, as the Halifax reviews its advertising business held by Bates
UK and the Nationwide looks outside Bartle Bogle Hegarty, it’s hard to
find other UK agencies without a conflicting account. Even those who
look free are not: Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R is barred from
competing because its US-based network client Citibank is managed on a
pan-European basis within Y&R Europe. But it has no conflict in the UK,
where the work will run.
No-one expects an agency to be able to work on directly competing
business (the days are long gone when two major banks could reside in
one agency as, amazingly, the TSB and NatWest once did at J. Walter
Thompson) but agencies are surely justified in asking for a more
realistic attitude to all the stuff that falls into the grey areas,
particularly in the telecommunications and IT categories.
For example, if Procter & Gamble, the litmus test by which other clients
judge their actions, can relax its conflict rules, then surely a high
street bank should be able to live with a bank that targets online
customers only. If the legal and consultancy professions can have rival
clients co-existing within one advisory organisation, why not agencies?
And isn’t it funny that there’s so much concern about advertising when
publishers print competing magazines, and direct marketing and media
buying agencies have much more leeway over conflict?
Clients might say here that the risk in handling similar clients is that
agencies might do ’better’ work for one than the other. Maybe that’s
valid in the context of media buying, where it seems to me that agencies
use the cover of bulk-buying to get away with murder, but that’s to
ignore one key aspect of advertising - creativity, unlike centre-breaks
in Coronation Street, is not a finite commodity.
The fact is that most conflicts are more emotional than rational because
agency-client relationships are more emotional than rational. But
perhaps there’s a way to make things more businesslike - a
’conflictometer’, a sort of BS5750 certification system to prove that an
agency can offer separate teams working in sealed areas. Although there
can be no such thing as an account in which the agency’s general
management is not involved, it should be possible to apply the principle
of Chinese walls in this way.
This may not be the answer, for most clients would hope that, if they
appoint an agency, the research and understanding gleaned on and payed
for by rival clients will be regenerated for their benefit.
But one thing is certain: as leading industries learn to speak the same
digital language and powerful alliances and mergers shape the business
world, the conflict issue will only get more important.