PERSPECTIVE: The issue of agency conflict is only going to get more complex

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.

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.



caroline.marshall@haynet.com.



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